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Neurofeedback Training and Hyperscanning for Mission Readiness and Return-to-Duty via Functional Near-Infrared Spectrometry (fNIRS)

Description:

TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Bio Medical 

OBJECTIVE: Under this STTR, performers shall develop a prototype real-time, portable, ruggedized functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system capable of performing mission readiness and fitness for duty assessments by identifying neurobiological (i.e., psychological and physiological) contributors to human performance in dynamic environments (e.g., aviation). 

DESCRIPTION: Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) is a relatively new method for recording human brain activity while performing various tasks. Traditional approaches to assess neural activity include the electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), however, these systems offer limited utility in dynamic environments. For example, EEG provides a low spatial resolution for identifying active brain regions and requires a specialized testing environment (e.g., Faraday cages) to reduce ambient electromagnetic noise. While fMRI typically provides good spatial resolution, it can lack temporal resolution due to the latency between task and the corresponding blood-oxygen-level dependent signal, and the system is typically large and immobile. In contrast, fNIRS overcomes the issues of brain region specificity and timing, and provides ample application in dynamic environments due to its portability and rapid sampling rate. Additionally, fNIRS is a reliable tool for assessing various physiological states, such as levels of hypoxia and dehydration (via blood volume), and psychological states, such as attentiveness, workload, and fatigue (Afergan et al., 2014; Ferrari & Quaresima, 2012). When a person reaches mastery (i.e., automaticity) in a specific motor task, brain activity changes within the corticostriatal and corticocerebellar pathways depending on which type of motor task is being learned (Doyon et al, 2002; Raley et al., 2004). This well-established understanding of brain activity during a motor learning task is extensible to complex motor tasks (e.g., piloting an aircraft). The variation in activity found during a motor learning task could provide a novel neurobiological signature to assess mission readiness in individuals and teams. With regards to mission readiness, fNIRS could be used to monitor warfighters during the mission preparation process. Information regarding individual or team cognitive states could augment individuals’ performance by providing real-time feedback about brain activity (i.e., neurofeedback). In cases where simulation environments are utilized as part of mission prep, a simulator system could use fNIRS data to modulate training difficulty by generating external cues to mitigate cognitive deficits or take advantage of cognitive resource surpluses (i.e., augmented cognition) (Raley et al., 2004). Moreover, when executing large operations where team cohesion is a top priority, fNIRS can be used to simultaneously scan all team members to assess the synchrony of brain activity (aka hyperscanning). Research suggests that as inter-brain synchrony increases, performance on tasks requiring cooperation or interaction increases as well (Cui et al., 2012). Finally, in the case of individuals recovering from serious bodily injuries, fNIRS can be a powerful tool for motor rehabilitation tasks (Oh et al., 2018). For example, equipment such as treadmills or powered physical augmentation suits (i.e., exoskeletons) could monitor fNIRS data about cognitive state and present more or less challenging regimes for re-learning mobility tasks (e.g., walking, running, balancing). The key problems to address are as follows: • Identify the functional neurobiological parameters for mission readiness and fit-for-duty assessment • Validate that fNIRS can be used to asses and report on these neurobiological states • Determine the changes in cortical activity while learning a complex motor task (e.g., piloting an aircraft) • Validate that fNIRs can be used efficiently to assess mission readiness using cortical activity measures • Deliver a prototype fNIRS system that can integrate into current warfighter equipment and provide assessments of readiness and fitness-for-duty The system should 1) be able to integrate with existing warfighter equipment without interfering with function or safety, and 2) provide an fNIRS assessment of current user state and provide feedback to facilitate mission success. The goals will likely transform as the project progresses to maximize the utility of this investigation. 

PHASE I: During Phase I, performers have three key tasks. First, to derive and validate a set of physiological and psychological states relevant to assessing mission readiness that can be monitored with fNIRS technology. Second, to conceptualize and design a rugged, portable solution to integrate fNIRS with current warfighter equipment. Third, to develop an IRB-approved experimental protocol (to be executed during Phase II) that will provide a usefulness evaluation of the prototype fNIRS solution with respect to assessing mission readiness. 

PHASE II: During Phase II, performers shall complete development of the prototype fNIRS system designed during Phase I and execute the experimental procedure developed in Phase I. Performers shall evaluate the use of fNIRS technology in assessing warfighter mission readiness and provide detailed use cases that can be further investigated prior to transition. 

PHASE III: Refine prototype (based on test and evaluation data from Phase II) to final configuration. Develop manufacturing and logistics process with Department of Defense and other government manufacturing engineers and logisticians. Possible testing of system and mission evaluation at one or more of the locations listed in the next paragraph. In addition, there are several potential civilian use cases for this system such as 1) in police/first responder training: a hyperscanning system could be used during VR training to assess trainee understanding of complex scenarios and a neurofeedback system would provide trainees with feedback to their own perception of the same scenarios; 2) disaster relief: a ruggedized and miniaturized fNIRS system would provide an additional metric for neurological assessment in a disaster area and allow medical personnel to triage based on the system information; and 3) strenuous underwater work: personnel who depend on a closed system to provide oxygen while performing complex motor tasks (e.g., undersea salvage, search and rescue, and undersea cable- and/or pipe-laying and repair) could benefit from a neurofeedback system. This system should serve multiple uses: hypoxia and other physiological state detection; psychological state and readiness for learning; augmented cognition; and social interaction facilitation. Hypoxia research remains the top Naval Aviation safety concern, but recent research suggests other physiological factors may contribute to pilot and aircrew physiological events and be misdiagnosed as hypoxia. This system would be useful in parsing apart these physiological event types. The additional areas of research for this project would be invaluable to aviation training commands across the DOD. Potential government customers include Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Special Operations Forces Acquisition Technology and Logistics (SOF AT&L), Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Office of Naval Research (ONR), Naval Health Research Center (NHRC), Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), United States Army Aviation Center of Excellence (USAACE), and Air Force Air Education and Training Command (AETC). 

REFERENCES: 

1: Afergan, D., Peck, E. M., Solovey, E. T., Jenkins, A., Hincks, S. W., Brown, E. T., ... & Jacob, R. J. (2014, April). Dynamic difficulty using brain metrics of workload. In Proceedings of the 32nd annual ACM conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 3797-3806). ACM.

2:  Cui, X., Bryant, D. M., & Reiss, A. L. (2012). NIRS-based hyperscanning reveals increased interpersonal coherence in superior frontal cortex during cooperation. Neuroimage, 59(3), 2430-2437.

3:  Doyon, J., Ungerleider, L. G., Squire, L., & Schacter, D. (2002). Functional anatomy of motor skill learning. Neuropsychology of memory, 3, 225-238.

4:  Ferrari, M., & Quaresima, V. (2012). A brief review on the history of human functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) development and fields of application. Neuroimage, 63(2), 921-935.

5:  Raley, C., Stripling, R., Kruse, A., Schmorrow, D., and Patrey, J. (2004). Augmented cognition overview: improving information intake under stress. Proc. Hum. Factors Ergon. Soc. Annu. Meet. 48, 1150–1154.

KEYWORDS: Functional Near Infrared Spectrometry, FNIRS, Neurofeedback, Hyperscanning, Aviation, Physiology, Psychology, Neuroscience 

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