The US military has found success testing devices that use electrical brain stimulation to enhance the mental performance of personnel in demanding roles, such as drone operators and air crews. The military hopes to use these devices to beam electrical pulses into the brains of these personnel to increase effectiveness during particularly high pressure situations.

The brain stimulating devices consist use five electrodes that send weak electrical currents to specific parts of the brain. Studies have shown that this can boost cognitive ability by helping neurons to fire. Drugs such as Ritalin and modafinil have also been used for performance enhancement in the armed forces, but electrical currents are favored as a safer alternative. However, experts have expressed concerns about staff being forced to use the devices if it is approved for military operations, and also regarding long-term safety of the practice.

In a recent report, scientists from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio raised concerns that performance of personnel in such roles can suffer in demanding situations over time.

The report reads:

“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. With the monotonous nature of these tasks, the operator’s performance may decline shortly after their work shift commences.”

The scientists found, in a series of experiments, that electrical impulses to the brain can help to improve multitasking skills, and prevent this drop in performance during monotonous and high-information tasks. They describe this effect as “profound”, in their report, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Their tests used an assessment of multitasking skills developed by NASA, which requires subjects to keep a crosshair inside a moving circle on a screen, while attending to three other ongoing tasks on the screen. Half of the test volunteers used the technology, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), while taking the test. These volunteers had a two milliamp current pumped into their brain for the 36 minutes of the test, while a control group only received such stimulation for 30 seconds at the start of the test.

The report showed that the group receiving electrical stimulation started to outperform the control group starting four minutes into the test, saying that “The findings provide new evidence that tDCS has the ability to augment and enhance multitasking capability in a human operator.”

Further experiments will be necessary to verify the improvement in performance, and to see how long it lasts. Most importantly, larger studies will be necessary to assess the long term safety of such devices.

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