Scientists measure what goes through a pilot’s brain in real time while flying

Listen 2:07
A pilot wears a wireless headband that tracks his brain activity, while flying a plane. Photo courtesy of ISAE-SUPAERO.

A pilot wears a wireless headband that tracks his brain activity, while flying a plane. Photo courtesy of ISAE-SUPAERO.

There have been many studies of pilots’ brains, but most are done in a lab, or in a flight simulator. It usually involves getting someone to lie down or sit very still.

That means a lot of studies of pilots are not done during actual flights, and that’s what experts say would be the optimum test.

Now, a study from Drexel University measures the brain activity of pilots in real time, while they are flying a plane. It could be useful for deciding which pilots should or should not be flying.

Hasan Ayaz, a professor of biomedical engineering at Drexel University, has been working on this testing.

“We wanted to see actually what happens when the pilots do the same task in an actual real condition, not a realistic but real condition, like the actual flight scenario.”

And he did just that, using a wireless headband that uses specific wavelengths of light to measure the changes in blood oxygen in the brain. The more oxygen is going to an area, the more that part of the brain is working. The technique is called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS.)

The scientists put these headbands on pilots in a flight simulator, and on pilots flying a small plane in the air.

The ones flying the real plane made more mistakes, and had to work their brains a lot harder.

Maybe that doesn’t sound too surprising. But the larger point is that this technology works.

Frédéric Dehais, a neuroscientist at the University of Toulouse in France, also worked on this study. As both an aviation specialist and a pilot, he thinks some form of this wireless headband could be used on commercial pilots.

For example, an airline could track whether a pilot’s brain is working overtime unnecessarily, “meaning that … we found that this pilot, this flight was too demanding, maybe he needs to rest, and it’s not a good idea to let him have another flight.”

Dehais says plane manufacturers are already looking at ways to monitor pilots in flight.

He adds that this opens up a lot of research on pilots. He plans to use this brain scanning headband with other existing techniques to study why pilots sometimes can’t hear loud alarms, like when this pilot in France forgot to lower his landing gear and made a “belly landing,” despite an extremely loud warning.

This has also happened to pilots in Colorado and Australia.

The fNIRS technique is useful for other researchers studying the brain as well, because they can study the brains of people without making them lie still by themselves and get scanned.

For example, Joy Hirsch, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University, recently used it and found that eye contact with a real person activates the parts of the brain that manage speech production and reception. It’s not the case when we look at pictures of people.

“This was a very unexpected finding, and what it means that actual eye contact with another person is like a call to action,” she said.

Hirsch and her collaborators plan to use fNIRS to see if anything is different when they repeat this experiment with people on the autism spectrum.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.