News | Aug. 15, 2020

AFRL neurotechnology partnership aims to accelerate learning

By Holly Jordan Air Force Research Laboratory

It may sound like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, but an Air Force Research Laboratory team is turning science fiction into reality to help warfighters unlock the powers of the brain.

The Individualized Neural Learning System, or iNeuraLS, is a new augmented learning platform that will enable rapid learning by closed-loop modulation of cognitive states during skill acquisition. Essentially, the AFRL team seeks to develop a capability that will give Airmen the ability to rapidly acquire knowledge and skills on the fly through direct brain interfaces with the help of neurotechnologies.

This research effort, led by the AFRL 711th Human Performance Wing, was recently named as one of several projects to receive funding as part of the Seedlings for Disruptive Capabilities Program. The SDCP brings together teams from across the AFRL technical directorates and their external partners to “seed” new ideas with potentially transformational capabilities in areas of particular interest to the Air Force, as outlined in the recent 2030 Science and Technology Strategy.

“We are very excited to launch this SDCP effort,” said Dr. Gaurav Sharma, senior technical lead for Cognitive Neuroscience at AFRL. “Neurotechnology is a major focus area for the 711 HPW, with a huge potential for enhancing capabilities for the Air Force as we move forward.”

Although the concept seems far-fetched on the surface, Sharma said it is actually more achievable than it sounds. “It may sound like science fiction, but it is rooted in science. Over the last decade we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of brain function related to Airman performance and have also developed and tested a toolkit of neuromodulation technologies to drive the brain to an optimal performance state. With iNeuraLS, we are taking it to the next level by creating an immersive closed-loop system that will be optimized to each user’s learning potential.”

“We’re going to have unprecedented access to the brain using a novel brain-machine interface,” said Dr. Nathaniel Bridges, AFRL research biomedical engineer and Neural Interface team lead. He added that these neural signals will be used to develop algorithms that will help researchers determine the optimal brain state under which individuals can receive information. From there, the team will determine the most effective means of enhancing the subjects’ ability to intake and process information. This could range from non-invasive neuromodulation—or brain stimulation—techniques to the use of augmented reality to alter perceived environmental conditions.

Bridges reiterated that this process is not as otherworldly as it may seem. To gather data on brain activity, the team will develop a hybrid brain-machine interface using a combination of two well-established, non-invasive technologies: electroencephalography, commonly known as EEG, and magnetoencephalography, or MEG. He explains that each technology offers its own advantages. Part of the information generated by neuronal currents in the brain is represented as electric fields, which are picked up by EEG, while the other part is represented as magnetic fields, which is picked up by MEG. Additionally, MEG allows for a higher spatial resolution compared to EEG. Therefore, a hybrid of the two technologies would allow researchers to gather information on brain activity quickly, and pinpoint exactly where the activity is occurring within the brain. The researchers will gather this data while a human subject is under different stages of learning and different variables such as fatigue, attention and memory.

At the culmination of the three-year effort, the team will demonstrate the technology through a use-case scenario, which may look something like a flight simulator task, to show the ability of the system to accelerate a user’s ability to acquire skills to complete the task.

Bridges said this research could ultimately prove beneficial in training Air Force pilots more quickly. Although the applications of this research are specifically focused toward the Air Force mission, he said the project will contribute to a body of knowledge that could indirectly benefit the entire neuroscience community. He also hopes that other military organizations such as the Space Force as well as the maintenance and aeromedical communities might benefit from and build upon the technology.

As with all the projects funded through the SDCP, this project is a collaborative effort that spans multiple AFRL directorates as well as partners throughout industry. Within AFRL, the team is collaborating with the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, which is contributing advanced materials technology to the hybrid EEG/MEG interface, and the Munitions Directorate, which is aiding in modeling and simulation. The industrial partners include Microsoft, which is managing content delivery and providing guidance on changes in virtual and augmented reality platforms and hardware. Also partnering on the project is Sonera Magnetics, which is working on part of the EEG/MEG interface; MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which is developing machine learning algorithms; and Teledyne Technologies, which is integrating the pieces to create a cohesive and optimally functioning product.

According to Sharma, the interaction with these partners is one of the key strengths of the project.

“We are working more closely than ever with industry leaders to develop groundbreaking technologies with transformative potential for the Air Force,” he said. “AFRL is committed to developing neurotechnology-enabled solutions to improve warfighter performance, and this partnership is only the beginning.”

Bridges said that now that the three-year SDCP award has been announced, the team is hitting the ground running, working hard to begin research efforts that will provide the foundation for iNeuraLS. He aims to expand the team through efforts to recruit new energetic and forward-thinking neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists and other professionals to advance the effort.

“We are very excited to embark on this research and see where we can take it,” Bridges said. “This is a project with tremendous potential for the military and neuroscientific community. It is truly art inspiring science.”