For some modern soldiers, caffeine is just not enough to stay vigilant, especially for the growing ranks of digital warriors who must spend hours monitoring spy drone footage and other streams of surveillance data. So the Pentagon is exploring a novel way to extend troops’ attention spans and sharpen their reaction times: stimulate the brain with low levels of electricity, a.k.a. TDCS.In search of more effective tools than cups of coffee and energy drinks, army commanders are testing same methods as we did with the Foc.Us headset to improve our gaming performance (read our product review here part 1, and here part 2).
medical treatments designed to treat such brain disorders as depression to determine whether they can also improve the attentiveness of sleep-deprived but otherwise healthy troops.
Early experiments using “non-invasive” brain stimulation have been performed on several dozen volunteers at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio. The results show the technique improves both alertness and acuity, researchers say. The research is described as one of the most in-depth studies of electric stimulation on healthy individuals. Specialists call the two different techniques being studied transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation.
‘We found that people who receive the stimulation are performing consistently,” R. Andy McKinley, a biomedical engineer who oversees the research, said in an interview.
Project officials want to study the effects further – especially to determine whether it is safe to stimulate the brain regularly – but said there have been few side effects, such as some skin irritation from the electrodes, as well as mild but brief headaches. They expressed confidence that the work could ultimately result in a pair of easy-to-apply electrodes becoming standard issue for some military personnel.
But the hardware is unlikely to be standard issue for civilians any time soon. For now, researchers don’t envision non-military application for the high-tech caffeine high.
”There is some evidence that it does seem to work,” said Dr. William “Scott” Killgore, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who specializes in the mental health treatments. “There have been a few studies that if you use it in the right place it can help mathematical calculations when people are sleep-deprived.”
Still, he cautioned, “it is not very precise yet.” For example, stimulating certain parts of the brain reduces activity in others.
”The hard part is to know what to turn on and what to turn off,” said Killgore, who is involved in a separate Pentagon study to help determine which parts of the brain are most effective to stimulate. “It gets somewhat complicated. It is a really exciting idea but it is slow going.”