A fatigued business executive drives home on a stormy night after a trying workday. An anesthesiologist fails to notice a dangerous change in her patient’s vital signs while attending a long, complex surgery. An air traffic controller causes a near collision between two airplanes during an overnight shift.
What happens to a taxed or impaired brain when it is operating in a stressful scenario?
The brain at work is a tricky thing to probe. Until recently, researchers could only analyze the brain activity of a patient or study volunteer in a laboratory setting. Often, subjective evaluations were based primarily on the operator’s behavior.
However, now, thanks to advances in cognitive neuroscience and imaging techniques, scientists can examine how the brain works in increasingly natural settings. And progress in artificial intelligence presents new models for understanding cognitive processing.
The emerging scientific field, which applies neuroscience to study performance, is called neuroergonomics. Its aim is to look at human skill and brain function, in order to design systems for safer and more efficient operation.
Hundreds of scientists from around the world will gather in Paris for the first International Neuroergonomics Conference the first week of October. A team of Drexel faculty members is hosting the conference, along with researchers from ISAE and AXA Research Fund. Banu Onaral, PhD, the H. H. Sun Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Electrical Engineering at Drexel, will host a panel discussion.
“Incorporating brain information into technology design and worker training is now feasible, and we can apply this in many different scenarios,” said Hasan Ayaz, PhD, associate research professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems at Drexel and co-chair of the conference with Frederic Dehais, PhD, of ISAE SUPAERO in Toulouse, France.
Drexel biomedical engineers are at the forefront of neuroergonomics. Their wearable, neuroimaging tool uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure brain activity through hemodynamic responses. Since the technology is portable, fNIRS has allowed researchers to more effectively evaluate air traffic controller performance, to assess virtual reality and to measure how schizophrenia patients respond to different therapies, among many other applications.
In one of his latest studies, Ayaz and a team of researchers used the fNIRS system to measure how well college students navigated campus using Google Glass vs. Google Maps on a smartphone.
To learn more about the International Neuroergonomics Conference, visit the event website.
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