Brains of Fighter Pilots Highly SensitiveFighter pilots have excellent cognitive control, despite being extra-sensitive to irrelevant, distracting information, according to scientists from University College London.

The differences between the brains of fighter pilots and a control group were revealed through both cognitive tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.  The scans revealed a difference in white matter microstructure in the right hemisphere of the pilots’ brains.

For the study, the cognitive skills of 11 front-line RAF (Royal Air Force) Tornado fighter pilots were compared to a control group with similar IQs and no piloting experience. All the volunteers took two “cognitive control” tests developed to rate decision-making time.  A type of MRI brain scan, called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), was then used to view the white matter connections between brain regions associated with cognitive control.

“We were interested in the pilots because they’re often operating at the limits of human cognitive capability — they are an expert group making precision choices at high speed,” said senior author Dr. Masud Husain of the UCL Institute of Neurology and UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“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.”

“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. 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.”

The cognitive tests evaluated how easily an individual was distracted by unnecessary information and then how that person would respond to it. For example, during the first test, participants pushed a right or left arrow key to match the direction of an arrow on a screen; to make things more complicated, the screen included other distracting arrows pointing in various directions. In the second test, volunteers had to respond as quickly as possible to a “go” signal, unless they were told to change their plans before they made a response.

The expert pilots were more accurate than age-matched controls on the first test.  Interestingly, there was no major difference in reaction time; in other words, the pilots performed the task at the same speed but with significantly higher accuracy.

The results of the second test showed no significant difference between the pilots and controls, suggesting that cognitive control expertise may be highly specialized and specific to certain tasks and not simply linked to a better performance overall.

The research is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Source:  University College London