Brains of fighter pilots are 'more sensitive': Study

Written by: Anita Nair
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Washington, Dec 15 (ANI): A new study, which included cognitive tests and MRI scans, has found that fighter pilots' brains are more sensitive as compared to a control group.

The research compared the cognitive performance of 11 front-line RAF (Royal Air Force) Tornado fighter pilots to a control group of a similar IQ with no previous experience of piloting aircraft.

All the participants completed two 'cognitive control' tasks, which were used to investigate rapid decision-making.

A type of MRI brain scans, known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), was then used to examine the structure of white matter connections between brain regions associated with cognitive control.

The researchers found that fighter pilots have superior cognitive control, showing significantly greater accuracy on one of the cognitive tasks, despite being more sensitive to irrelevant, distracting information.

The scans also revealed differences between pilots and controls in the microstructure of white matter in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Senior author Professor Masud Husain, UCL Institute of Neurology and UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said, "We were interested in the pilots because they're often operating at the limits of human cognitive capability - they are an expert group making precision choices at high speed."

"Our findings show that optimal cognitive control may surprisingly be mediated by enhanced responses to both relevant and irrelevant stimuli, and that such control is accompanied by structural alterations in the brain," he added.

This has implications beyond simple distinctions between fighter pilots and the rest of us because it suggests expertise in certain aspects of cognition are associated with changes in the connections between brain areas. So, it's not just that the relevant areas of the brain are larger - but that the connections between key areas are different. Whether people are born with these differences or develop them is currently not known

These findings suggest that in humans some types of expert cognitive control may be mediated by enhanced response gain to both relevant and irrelevant stimuli, and is accompanied by structural alterations in the white matter of the brain.

The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience. (ANI)

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