SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The use of small, portable eye-tracking devices in cockpits could be a future additional safeguard for pilots and other safety critical operators, according to a Mayo Clinic study published in the July issue of Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine.
Eye movement metrics have been recognized as promising indicators of altered cognitive performance caused by hypoxia at high altitudes. Hypoxia is a lower than normal level of oxygen in your blood. To function properly, your body needs a certain level of oxygen circulating in the blood to cells and tissues. When this level of oxygen falls below a certain amount, hypoxia can cause a variety of symptoms including shortness of breath, impaired speech, slowed reaction time and passing out which can be a safety threat at high altitudes.
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Historically, the most common way to detect hypoxia is by physical signs and individual symptoms and one of the most commonly studied effects of hypoxia is reaction time. In a previous study in 2013, Mayo Clinic researchers have found that hypoxia can be detected prior to incapacitating physical symptoms. In the new study, Mayo Clinic researchers tested the feasibility of using a portable eye-tracking device in a simulated environment as a way to detect the early phases of hypoxia.
“This would allow us to track a biomarker that is involved with the act of flying without having to encumber the pilot by attaching things to them – just allow the pilot to do what they do and then look for early warning patterns,” says Jan Stepanek, M.D., the Mayo Clinic Aerospace Medicine Program Director and Co-Director of the Aerospace Medicine & Vestibular Research Laboratory.
The Mayo Clinic study team used the King-Devick neurocognitive performance test, which is commonly used to identify cognitive changes related to sports-related concussions, and to assess cognitive function under conditions of low oxygen-simulating altitude. The King-Devick test assesses the time in viewing, identifying and reading aloud a series of numbers on three consecutive test cards.
Dr. Stepanek added that monitoring eye tracking in flight is a “fertile area of study” and further research is ongoing.
This study is the latest in a long line of contributions from the Mayo Clinic Aerospace Medicine efforts since the inception of this line of work in Rochester, Minn., in the 1930s. Mayo Clinic physiologists and altitude scientists developed several life support systems and strategies vital to military pilot safety in the World War II era that are in use until today. Prior to pressurized aircraft cabins for commercial airline passenger flights, aircraft flew at relatively low altitudes to avoid hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions. Mayo scientists developed an oxygen mask for pilots and passengers to wear during flights, allowing travel at higher altitudes above turbulent weather conditions, making flights smoother and more tolerable to travelers.
Today, a team of Mayo physicians and scientists is continuing to investigate problems related to altitude, spatial disorientation and acceleration protection in dedicated laboratories at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
Clinical care and consultation for pilots and passengers with Aerospace Medicine related conditions are treated by board-certified specialists in Aerospace Medicine at all three Mayo Clinic campuses in Arizona, Florida and Rochester.
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