Stimulating experience: New tech may delay effects of worker fatigue

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A new wearable neurotechnology may delay the effects of fatigue by stimulating certain parts of the brain, researchers at Texas A&M University say.

They are evaluating transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a noninvasive technology that applies weak electrical currents to certain parts of the brain to overcome the effects of fatigue.

Fatigue, due to extended periods of work and insufficient rest, can impair job performance, situation awareness and decision-making capabilities, even when it’s needed most. Specifically, in safety-critical environments, such as responding to wildfires, fatigue has been associated with a two-fold increase in the risk of injuries and errors, and a four-fold increase in safety-compromising behaviors during emergencies.

“Administrative and personal countermeasures, such as sleep/shift schedules, education and stimulants like caffeine, take a reactive approach and are largely impractical during emergencies. In some cases, they are accompanied by substantial health side effects,” said Ranjana Mehta, associate professor in the Wm Michael Barnes ’64 Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. “Transformative human augmentation paradigms to proactively tackle fatigue deficits through noninvasive neurostimulation have proven more effective than stimulants and may address prevailing adoption barriers.”

The research team also includes Reed Smoot, an undergraduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Rohith Karthikeyan, a doctoral student in the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering, and first author and lead student on the study.

The team conducted a three-session experimental study with 32 participants. At each session, participants completed an hour-long fatiguing cognitive task that has shown to disrupt and impair an individual’s cognitive processes and executive functions, i.e., working memory. Participants either received anodal stimulation, associated with the enhancement of the stimulated brain area, received a sham (placebo) stimulation or did not receive the stimulation on each of the three sessions.

The stimulation was provided at the 20-minute mark during the fatiguing task for 10 minutes at 1 mA (milliampere). Task performance, fatigue responses, effort, discomfort and heart-rate variability were also evaluated.

Out of the counterbalance of anodal stimulation, sham stimulation and no stimulation, the team found that by exciting neuronal activity through anodal stimulation, task performance under fatigue improved by approximately 15 percent (ranging from 10-50 percent across the study pool), while it decreased under the other two sessions.

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