CLEVELAND - NASA is investigating the best methods for monitoring brain activity as part of a study designed to help airplane pilots realize when they are operating under dangerous levels of stress, fatigue and distraction.
Studies under way at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland are employing functional near infrared spectroscopy, also know as fNIRS, and other imaging technology to measure blood flow in the brain's cortex and the concentration of oxygen in the blood. This emerging technology offers a non-invasive, safe, portable and inexpensive method for monitoring indicators of neural activity.
Through the studies, researchers hope to find ways to improve the interaction between the increasingly sophisticated automation being used in aircraft and the humans who operate those aircraft. The goal is to aid pilot decision-making to improve aviation safety.
Angela Harrivel, a NASA biomedical engineer who leads the research, and research associates are working on fNIRS at Glenn with 15 test subjects.
"No matter how much training pilots have, conditions could occur when too much is going on in the cockpit," said Harrivel. "What we hope to achieve by this study is a way to sensitively - and, ultimately, unobtrusively - determine when pilots become mentally overloaded."
Harrivel and the project are working with the test subjects, who don headgear fitted with optical or electrical sensors and sit in a moving cockpit simulator that creates the sensation of flying. The tests measure electrical activity in the brain to validate spectroscopic data obtained through the fNIRS sensors.
The volunteers perform basic functional tasks and participate in more complex flight simulations. Future tests will challenge the subjects with stress-inducing conditions as they use a joystick and flight instruments to try to stay "airborne" in the simulator.
"Flying an aircraft involves multitasking that potentially can push the limits of human performance," Harrivel said. "When we increase stress and difficulty we can see how the subject reacts, measuring brain activity during overload."
The Aviation Safety Program of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington sponsored the research. It is overseen by the program's Integrated Intelligent Flight Deck Project.
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