Shock the Brain vs. Coffee? Pentagon Studies Ways to Keep Soldiers Sharp

Wednesday, 19 Feb 2014 07:55 AM

By Elliot Jager

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The Pentagon is exploring ways to keep digital warriors alert using electrical stimulation of the brain in place of coffee,  The Boston Globe reported.

The idea is to find a better alternative to coffee and energy drinks that would improve the attentiveness of sleep-deprived troops. A 2011 report said that one third of digital warriors operating cameras on attack drones suffered from exhaustion, USA Today reported.

R. Andy McKinley, a biomedical engineer managing the experiments, said, "We are beyond the proof-of-concept phase. We are working on something that would be easy to apply that you could potentially field," according to the Globe.

Preliminary results show the approach may improve sharpness in thinking, as well as alertness, with subjects reported to feel refreshed at the end of the test period.

"I wasn't sure what to expect," said Staff Sgt. William Raybon. Despite being sleep-deprived, Raybon said he felt "refreshed" when the treatment was over.

Digital soldiers monitor many screens and need to process multiple sources of data simultaneously. Even those tasked with making battlefield decisions employing drone footage are not eligible to receive prescription drugs.

Several separate Pentagon studies are under way to stimulate the brain using very low levels of electricity on volunteers. These efforts reflect one of the most comprehensive examinations of electric stimulation on healthy individuals, according to the Globe.

In one approach, a magnetic field passes electrical current into the brain. A second technique sends one milliampere for 10 minutes directly into the brain.

Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Alan Shaffer said future battles will be decided on the basis of which side can "process information most quickly and react to that. If you can't make sense of all the information coming in around you, and get to a decision, it has little value."

McKinley said that many questions still had to be answered regarding long-term effects of the electricity.

The multiple studies under way are being conducted by the Air Force, Army, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and together have cost about $1 million.

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