Military tests direct brain stimulation to improve multitasking performance

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends
Military tests direct brain stimulation to improve multitasking performance
Stimulating brains with external electrodes shows promise for increasing military personnel cognitive performance in high-stress multitasking situations. There are still questions about the use of direct brain stimulation in and out of the military.

How do you cope with incoming data overload arriving from multiple sources? If you’re the U.S. military, you look for ways to overcome the problem. Increasingly complex data requiring rapid recognition and response in highly tense situations, and thereby causing personnel performance slumps, led the military to test direct cranial stimulation as a means of increasing effectiveness. So far it looks like transcutaneous direct current stimulation (tDCS) works in testing, but there are still questions about its use, The Guardian reports.

Drone operators are used as an example of personnel who fact a multitasking overload. “Within the air force, various operations such as remotely piloted and manned aircraft operations require a human operator to monitor and respond to multiple events simultaneously over a long period of time,” write scientists at the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “With the monotonous nature of these tasks, the operator’s performance may decline shortly after their work shift commences.”

More: Path to higher productivity is focus, not multitasking, study finds

The test device consisted of five paired electrode sets. The anode patches are placed directly on the scalp over the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (reach up over your left eye and touch the top left front of your head — that’s the location). The cathode patches are put on the right shoulder rather than elsewhere on the scalp in order to avoid exciting an additional part of the brain.

In the tDCS testing, which took place at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, test subjects showed an approximate 30-percent cognitive performance increase compared to a control group. The researchers noted,“The findings provide new evidence that tDCS has the ability to augment and enhance multitasking capability in a human operator.” The next step is to test how long the stimulation lasts.

Prescription drugs such as modafinil and Ritalin have both been used for performance enhancement by the military, according to The Guardian, but the potential long-term health effects are of concern. On-the-job electrical brain stimulation raises concern as well, of course. Neil Levy of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics says brain e-stim may be safer than performance enhancement drugs but he’s not all in with the plan.

“I have more serious worries about the extent to which participants can give informed consent, and whether they can opt out once it is approved for use,” Levy said. “Even for those jobs where attention is absolutely critical, you want to be very careful about making [this] compulsory, or there being a strong social pressure to use it, before we are really sure about its long-term safety.”