Kent State University researchers are examining the effects of hypoxia on pilots and the implications this could have for the military. Hypoxia, a lack of sufficient oxygen to the body, disrupts cognitive and physical functions.
In an effort that spans three departments, researchers are using flight simulators to monitor pilots as they are deprived of oxygen, and recording their psychological and physical changes.
See Kent State Professors Talk About this Research (video)
The School of Health Sciences and the Department of Psychology are particularly interested in how the mind and body work together and how the lack of oxygen can adversely affect the performance of a pilot or crew.
"Weâ€™re looking at a new world," Dr. Ellen Glickman, professor in the School of Health Sciences said. "For too long researchers have ignored the relationship between the mind and body and we are proud to be at the forefront of this emerging field of inquiry.
Kent State University separates itself from other institutions because the College of Technology provides pilots toward these research pursuits, giving researchers direct access in their labs. It also allows pilots in the College of Technology to gain first-hand experience of negative factors they might experience in flight.
What makes this research difficult is that no two pilots are psychologically or physically the same.
"Each pilot is unique in how he responds to circumstances in flight," Raymond Weber, pilot and assistant professor in the College of Technology flight training program said. "Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so important that we collaborate with the School of Health Sciences and the Department of Psychology. New pilots will be able to test their cognitive limits and gain first-hand experience of what to expect when hypoxic.
The military implications of this research are numerous. Imagine pilots performing at optimal levels at all times. This research identifies warning signs for pilots and allows them to know when they might start experiencing cognitive and physical issues.
"Weâ€™re trying to optimize human performance," Dr. John Gunstad, associate professor in the Department of Psychology said. "We want to know the cognitive barriers a pilot and crew will face if sent to the top of a mountain and immediately asked to perform a physical mission.
The motivation for this project came from research showing that aircrews often report symptoms consistent with acute mountain sickness (i.e. not enough oxygen), even at low to moderate altitudes. Work at Kent State and by others shows that persons with these symptoms are at risk for mental mistakes.
"At this point, in terms of the research, there are two very important steps," Dr. Gunstad said. The first is where we are now, which is grasping the true nature of the problem. We barely understand how low levels of oxygen affect the brain and body. Once weâ€™re able to comprehend that, we can move on to the big step which is what can we do about it. What type of treatment, medications, exercises or strategies can allow persons to function at their best in these situations?
Accelerating that process defines the working relationships between these departments at Kent State University.
"Experts in different fields are crucial to understanding," Dr. Glickman said. "Multidisciplinary research allows us to look at a problem from a number of different perspectives.
"Collaboration across the different departments is one of the best parts of the job," Dr. Gunstad said. "No one person is expert at everything, so working with other departments makes for more worthwhile discovery."