NASA Conducts Pilot Cognition Studies

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NASA is conducting a study using sophisticated imaging technology to track how blood flows in the brains of airline pilots as they interact with the sophisticated electronic gear that clutters today's cockpits. "What we hope to achieve by this study is a way to sensitively -- and, ultimately, unobtrusively -- determine when pilots become mentally overloaded," said Angela Harrivel, a NASA biomedical engineer who is leading the research project. "No matter how much training pilots have, conditions could occur when too much is going on in the cockpit." Her project aims to determine the best methods for monitoring brain activity, as part of a study designed to help airplane pilots recognize when they are operating under dangerous levels of stress, fatigue and distraction. The study employs functional near-infrared spectroscopy, also know as fNIRS, to measure blood flow in the brain's cortex and the concentration of oxygen in the blood as the test subjects work in a full-motion flight simulator. This emerging technology offers a non-invasive, safe, portable and inexpensive method for monitoring indicators of neural activity, according to NASA.

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 and improve aviation safety. The project is taking place at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio, with 15 pilot volunteers. "Flying an aircraft involves multitasking that potentially can push the limits of human performance," Harrivel said. "When we increase stress and difficulty [in the simulator] we can see how the subject reacts, measuring brain activity during overload."