Clue to brain power of fighter pilots

Brain scans of fighter pilots Differences in white matter (pink) and the connections between those areas (orange and blue)

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Fighter pilots may owe their ability to perform under pressure to the way their brains are wired-up, scans suggest.

The study found differences in the white matter and connections of the brain's right hemisphere, compared with healthy volunteers who were not pilots.

It is not clear whether pilots are born like that, or develop the differences as a result of their training.

The research by University College London (UCL) is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Royal Air Force fighter pilots are trained to fly at supersonic speeds at low altitude, requiring fine control with very little room for error.

The discipline is considered to be at the limits of human cognitive performance, prompting doctors at UCL to study their brain function.

The research team looked at how 11 front-line RAF Tornado fighter pilots performed in two standard visual cognitive tests to assess their powers of thought.

Their test scores were compared with healthy people of the same age and sex who had no experience of piloting aircraft.

The subjects were also given MRI scans to look at the structure of their brains.

Cognitive tests

  • The first test, known as the Eriksen Flanker, measures how quickly and accurately someone can respond to a target stimulus, while being distracted by symbols like arrows or letters.
  • In the second test, participants have to respond as quickly as possible to the signal "go", unless they are told to change their plan before they have made a response.

The two visual tests measure how quickly and accurately someone can respond to a target, while being distracted.

The pilots were found to respond more accurately than the control group in the first test, but there was no difference in the second test, suggesting their brain performance was highly particular to specific tests, say the authors.

Professor Masud Husain of the UCL Institute of Neurology and UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience said his research team was interested in the pilots as an expert group capable of making precision choices at high speed.

Born or bred?

He said their ability to perform more accurately in certain tasks was associated with differences in the wiring of the right hemisphere of the brain.

The findings suggested that optimal cognitive control is accompanied by structural alterations in the brain - not only are the relevant areas of the brain larger but connections between key areas are different, he said.

He told the BBC: "An interesting question is whether these pilots were born like that - and so are good as pilots - or have done this through training.

"There's a suggestion it may be they are born like that."

He said the team hopes to look at other professional groups, such as sporting stars and bankers, to see whether there were more differences in brain structure.

"What makes them different?" he added. "Are there signatures in the brain you can see in a scan?"

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