Study Investigates Mental Overload in Pilots

November 26, 2008
Study Investigates Mental Overload in Pilots
Test subject Maciej "Mac" Zborowski wears headgear with optical sensors to measure his brain activity. Credit: NASA

Have you ever felt as if your brain was so full of information that you couldn't process another thing? Mental overload creates confusion and frustration, and for airline pilots, the consequences can be disastrous.

Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland are studying how advanced technology can be used to warn pilots when they are operating under dangerous levels of stress, fatigue and distraction. Biomedical engineer and lead researcher Angela Harrivel and research associate Terri McKay are testing the effectiveness of functional near infrared spectroscopy, also known as fNIRS. This emerging technology offers a non-invasive, safe, portable and inexpensive method for monitoring brain activity.

It uses infrared light to penetrate skin, brain and fluid to examine blood flow in the cortex and check the concentration of oxygen in the blood indicating neural activity.

"We ultimately want to use the technology to help pilots be more aware of their cognitive abilities during flight," says Harrivel. "No matter how much training they have, pilots could suffer from a lack of situational awareness when there is simply too much going on."

Pushing the limits

The scientists have fitted a kickboxing helmet with fNIRS optical sensors. In the study, Glenn volunteers don the helmet and sit in a moving cockpit simulator to give them a sensation of flying. The test subjects are presented with a variety of distractions and stress-inducing conditions as they use a joystick and flight instruments to stay "airborne" in virtual mode.

"Flying involves a lot of multitasking which can push the limits of human performance. During the simulation we purposely increase difficulty to add stress and confusion to see how they react and measure brain activity during overload," Harrivel explains.

Harrivel will redesign the headgear to make it more practical for everyday use if the research proves functional near infrared spectroscopy to be a reliable technology for monitoring pilot cognition.

Harrivel says the research also could reveal ways to simplify the delivery of information in the cockpits of commercial aircraft. Flight computers could be designed to detect dangerously high levels of distraction or stress and supply only the most critical data to the pilots until the situation is under control. The goal is to help pilots make better decisions to ensure the safety of their passengers.

One of the test subjects is Glenn employee Jim Withrow, himself a licensed pilot. "The ability to maintain situational awareness is critical, both in high stress areas and in periods when pilot demands are very low," Withrow said. "This research is reaching out to ensure that pilots get and keep their head in the game."

Most of the test subjects are not licensed pilots. Researchers enlisted both licensed and unlicensed pilots to participate in order to ensure a mix of participants -- those who were enthusiastic about the tests because of their flight experience, and those who had little or no flight experience but could demonstrate performance improvement over time.

The study is overseen by NASA's Integrated Intelligent Flight Deck Project, which is managed and funded by the Aviation Safety Program of NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate in Washington.

Source: Nancy Smith Kilkenny (SGT, Inc.), NASA's Glenn Research Center

Explore further: John Glenn still inspires 55 years after his 1st orbit

Related Stories

John Glenn still inspires 55 years after his 1st orbit

February 20, 2017
John Glenn is continuing to inspire 55 years after becoming the first American to orbit Earth.

Famed astronaut John Glenn laid to rest at Arlington

April 6, 2017
The flag-draped casket of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, was covered in plastic to protect it from a steady rain as it was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to his final resting place at Arlington National ...

US honors astronauts for pioneering space flights

November 16, 2011
The US Congress on Wednesday bestowed its highest civilian honor on four American space pioneers of the 1960s, marking the first time the Congressional Gold Medal has been awarded to astronauts.

Russia marks 'forgotten spaceman's' historic flight

August 4, 2011
Russia on Saturday marks 50 years since Gherman Titov became the second man in orbit, a historic achievement long eclipsed by the first space flight of his friend and rival Yuri Gagarin months earlier.

NASA launching new Orion spacecraft on test flight (Update)

December 1, 2014
NASA's quest to send astronauts out into the solar system begins this week with a two-laps-around-Earth test flight.

Scott Carpenter, 2nd US astronaut in orbit, dies (Update 3)

October 10, 2013
Scott Carpenter conquered the heights of space, the depths of the ocean, and the darkness of fear. And in doing so he became the second American to orbit the Earth, powered by not just a rocket but an insatiable curiosity.

Recommended for you

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

'bench to bedside to bench': Scientists call for closer basic-clinical collaborations

March 24, 2017
In the era of genome sequencing, it's time to update the old "bench-to-bedside" shorthand for how basic research discoveries inform clinical practice, researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), National Human Genome Research ...

The ethics of tracking athletes' biometric data

January 18, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it is a FitBit or a heart rate monitor, biometric technologies have become household devices. Professional sports leagues use some of the most technologically advanced biodata tracking systems to ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.