Army searches for a cure for fatigue

Caffeinated chewing gum, jolts in helmets tested as ways to stay awake

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SILVER SPRING - Army Col. Gregory Belenky pops a stick of "Stay Alert" gum and chomps it for an hour, ignoring the label on the camouflage wrapper that warns him not to chew the super-caffeinated military product for more than five minutes.

What do you expect from the Army's chief sleep deprivation expert? He's tired.

Since the war with Iraq began, the fatigue questions have kept this military psychiatrist's phone ringing at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Among the callers: the Army surgeon general's office, which recently requested several cases of "Stay Alert" - a sickly sweet gum that works like a giant coffee, only much faster.

Quick-fix gum is one of the less sophisticated solutions the Yale-educated psychiatrist has considered when it comes to combat fatigue. For nearly three decades at his lab in this suburban Maryland military complex, he has been studying how fatigue impairs commanders and their troops and trying to devise high-tech solutions.

"Right now you can measure quantities of water, ammunition, food, but a commander has no such certainty with regard to sleep - a commander doesn't know how much sleep people are getting," says Belenky. In his hands he holds a black plastic "sleep watch," a device he says has the potential to help military leaders measure the fatigue of their troops and spend or conserve their energy like ammunition or fuel.

"There's a lot more to sleep deprivation errors than simply falling asleep," says Belenky. "A lot of it is the fact that people don't think clearly when they're sleep-deprived, so though they're awake, there are errors, accidents, wrong turns, friendly-fire incidents and tactical mistakes that wouldn't be made if they were well-rested."

Since World War II, the Pentagon has improved all kinds of machinery but done little to address the problem of sleepy soldiers. By and large, commanders have offered their troops the same solutions for the past six decades: caffeine, amphetamine "go pills," catnaps and, perhaps most compelling of all, bellowing threats to stay awake.

But now the Pentagon is devoting new attention to combat fatigue.

The research is not being adapted to this war - and might never make it to the battlefield - but that hasn't stopped the military from investing in a variety of futuristic sleep solutions. The proposals range from Belenky's wristwatch-like device that shows whether a soldier has gotten enough rest to enter combat, to a helmet with electromagnetic sensors that delivers a jolt to wake up a tired soldier's brain.

The troops in Iraq already are showing signs of weariness. This week, one report cited fatigue as a reason it took an hour to land six planes on the deck of an aircraft carrier - a task that normally would take a relatively few minutes. During last week's sandstorms, Army drivers in a long convoy kept falling asleep and veering off track.

Though a foot soldier can catch a nap at odd hours, research at Walter Reed indicates that it takes days or even weeks to recover from getting only four hours of sleep a night several nights in a row.

And then there is the sleep macho that exists among commanders. The military has been struggling with the problem of leaders who won't miss anything on the battlefield by sleeping - even though complex thought, judgment and imagination are the first brain functions to diminish with fatigue.

"There's almost a guilt about sleep," says Dr. Mark George, director of the Brain Stimulation Laboratory at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Lack of sleep is just a major problem. When it comes to our weapons, we can make things faster, better, more powerful, but there's really been a lack of work to improve the human side."

George has been awarded a $1 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the central research and development arm of the Defense Department, for his work on electromagnet stimulation as an antidote to fatigue.

In the past year, George has been applying electromagnetic coils to the scalps of 45 sleep-deprived civilian volunteers and delivering quick, high-intensity currents to the outside of their heads to see if it improves their coordination and thinking.

Alongside this technology, George is devising a helmet or a chair to incorporate that technology for military use - so that, on cue, a commander or a grunt could self-administer a jolt to wake up his or her tired mind. George calls it "brain-tickling."

"It feels like someone tapping on your head with an eraser - it's not that terribly unpleasant," says George, adding that tests show promising results and no side effects. "We were asked to seize hold of the radical idea that you could actually stimulate parts of the brain and temporarily reverse the deficits caused by sleep deprivation."

But such a solution would be temporary; research shows that nothing restores the body the way actual sleep does. Every living creature, even a fruit fly, needs sleep.

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