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Study Finds Fighter Pilot Brains Are Unique

December 15, 2010

The brains of fighter pilots are significantly different from those of the average individual, claims a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Using a series of cognitive tests and MRI scans, researchers from University College London (UCL) studied 11 front-line Tornado fighter pilots from the Royal Air Force (RAF). Each of the pilots were asked to complete two “cognitive control” tasks centered around rapid decision making, and also had their brains scanned using a type of MRI known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).

In comparison to control group subjects of similar intelligence, the pilots displayed “superior cognitive control, showing significantly greater accuracy on one of the cognitive tasks, despite being more sensitive to irrelevant, distracting information,” the UCL experts said in a press release, adding that the DTI scans “revealed differences between pilots and controls in the microstructure of white matter in the right hemisphere of the brain.”

“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,” Masud Husain, a professor at the UCL Institute of Neurology and UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

“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,” Husain added. “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.”

According to the UCL press release, the tasks were created to gauge how much distracting information could influence a person’s cognitive processes, as well as each subject’s ability to alter their response plan when presented with conflicting visual information.

For example, one test involved pressing a left or right arrow key in response to an on-screen prompt, which was surrounded by other arrows pointing in different directions. In that test, the experienced pilots were far more accurate than their civilian counterparts, with “no significant difference in reaction time.” Other tasks completed for the study showed similar results.

Husain told BBC News Health Reporter Helen Briggs that the study illustrated that the ability to perform those kinds of tasks were associated to structural differences in areas of the brain, as well as connections between different vital regions. He also told Briggs that the evidence suggests that the pilots “are born like that,” rather than it being a learned or acquired trait.

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