By Jenna Somers
During battle, many soldiers who become wounded find themselves at the mercy of another soldier’s medical training, hoping beyond hope that the soldier administering aid will remember their training well enough to save the wounded soldier’s life. Under such duress, recalling the details of medical training could be difficult, and the failure of memory lethal.
But what if there were a way to augment brain function for improved medical learning retention? A transdisciplinary team from Vanderbilt, Soterix Medical and the U.S. Army is collaborating to answer that question. Recently, the team advanced to the finals of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s xTechBrain Operant Learning Technology—xTechBOLT—prize competition, where they will compete in November with four other teams for the $500,000 first-place prize.
Promoting high-risk, high-reward research in memory retention is the goal of the competition, and the Vanderbilt team’s expertise in educational neuroscience, industry innovation and military needs may prove to be the winning combination. Their interdisciplinary collaboration stems from the 2020 Trans-institutional Programs (TIPs) initiative award, “Soldier-Inspired Innovation Incubator for Discovering Research-Based Solutions (VRA),” which supports research at the School of Engineering, College of Arts and Science, Peabody College, School of Medicine–Clinical, and Owen Graduate School of Management. As the first university to sign an Educational Partnership Agreement with the Army Futures Command, Vanderbilt is a leader in soldier-inspired innovation, and the work of the xTechBOLT team is the latest example of that leadership.
Led by Katherine Aboud, postdoctoral fellow and National Institutes of Health Outstanding Scholar of Neuroscience, and her mentor, Laurie Cutting, Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor at Peabody College and a member of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, the team is using high-resolution brain data imaging based on research from Cutting’s Education and Brain Science Research Lab to develop an individualized, high-definition non-invasive brain stimulation (HD-NIBS) protocol for accelerated medical learning in the classroom. They will then track how medical learning translates to performance on medical simulation tasks. Specifically, they aim to improve performance on the Expert Field Medical Badge Test, the most failed medical test in the Army.
“Over the past two decades, my lab has been using multiple neuroimaging modalities, including diffusion tenser imaging, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and volumetric magnetic resonance imaging, in combination with traditional educational approaches to pioneer neural characterization of learning and learning disorders, particularly in the context of language and individual differences in learning,” Cutting said. “Of particular interest to the [xTechBOLT competition] proposal is the lab’s groundbreaking work on the role of executive functions and emotional salience on text-based learning, and the neural predictors of these learning outcomes and processes.”
The xTechBOLT competition challenges teams to produce a technology that will promote optimal retention and access to memories. The team’s software, BRILLIANCE (for Brain tailoRed stImulation protocoL for acceLerated medIcal performance), will allow any non-scientist to facilitate medical learning retention with the click of a button. The software will interpret high-resolution brain data and send targeting information to Soterix Medical’s HD-NIBS technology called High-Definition transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation (HD-tACS).Placed on a person’s scalp, electrodes promote communication between multiple areas of the brain. In the present study, electrodes will target brain areas that are responsible for higher order learning. Ultimately, the team plans to commercialize BRILLIANCE as a non-invasive, individualized brain stimulation software for accelerated medical performance.
Aboud’s pioneering research catalyzed the collaboration between Vanderbilt and Soterix Medical. A couple of years ago, Aboud read about the application of Soterix Medical’s technology to remove age-related differences in memory between typical older and younger adults. Wanting to collaborate with Soterix Medical on learning retention, she opened up a line of communication with Abishek Datta, chief technology officer, co-founder and scientist at Soterix Medical. Like Aboud, he recognized that a collaboration between Vanderbilt and Soterix Medical could potentially enhance learning retention not just for soldiers but for people of all backgrounds.
“Importantly, our HD-tACS technology is painless and allows unobtrusive pairing with other tasks—features that will undoubtedly help in transitioning this technology to an operational setting in the future,” Datta said. “Our research and development team will work closely with Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Army teams and leverage our decade-long experience in optimized brain stimulation solutions to achieve our goal of accelerating learning.”
Following the proof-of-concept phase, the team plans to test BRILLIANCE on 120 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, who volunteered to participate in the study as members of Vanderbilt’s Soldier-Inspired Innovation Incubator. Directed by Doug Adams, Daniel F. Flowers Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Soldier-Inspired Innovation Incubator includes soldiers in design processes to ensure that Vanderbilt research and innovation supports their success in training and on the battlefield.
“The software being developed by Katherine Aboud, Laurie Cutting, and their team is combining soldiers’ insights with Vanderbilt’s trans-institutional capabilities in the neuroscience of learning and industry’s capabilities in brain stimulation to develop a state-of-the-art approach for supporting soldier learning and retention,” Adams said. “This is exactly the kind of high-impact work that the Soldier-Inspired Incubator TIPs is enabling by acquiring instrumentation that our interdisciplinary teams of researchers can use to explore solution concepts with soldiers to address some of the most challenging problems they face.”
Vanderbilt also works with Army personnel on campus, such as Lt. Gen. Gary Cheek, director of the Bass Military Scholars Program, and Lt. Col. and Associate Professor of Military Science and Arts and Science Brandon Hulette, who regularly provide guidance to the Soldier-Inspired Innovation Incubator, including supporting the xTechBOLT prize competition proposal. Additionally, Vanderbilt consultant and former Command Innovation Officer of the Army Futures Command Jay Harrison shared critical insights with the team into the structure of competitions like xTechBOLT and helped shape the final proposal.
“I am very excited about our team’s cutting-edge work. This mechanism of the xTechBOLT competition allows us to consider a level of scientific and technological innovation that you often can’t examine through other mechanisms,” Aboud said. “Beyond the competition, we could really do a lot of good. If we’re able to enhance medical learning in a meaningful way, the number of applications of this technology in other educational settings would be incredible. Ultimately, we really want to improve people’s lives by helping our brains learn more effectively.”