Imagine if employers monitored the performance of air traffic controllers and baggage screeners not just for mistakes, but--through on-the-job brain monitoring--for insights into their brain functioning. The idea: Anticipate cognitive decline or fatigue in the workers to prevent safety problems.

A group of psychologists, neurologists and other medical professionals is pursuing such a vision of improved worker functioning in an increasingly high-tech world through a melding of neuroscience and ergonomics. Through research in the area, they hope to better understand and improve the brain's functioning at work.

The results could be far ranging, from altering training of assembly-line workers to reconfiguring automation in airplane cockpits so pilots aren't overwhelmed with tasks during high-stress situations. Closer to home, the developing field could help redesign tomorrow's cars to minimize sensory overload from navigation systems, media gadgets and other devices so the real work--driving--isn't jeopardized.

"Technology that is supposed to help us sometimes can have unintended consequences like increased mental demands," says Raja Parasuraman, PhD, a George Mason University psychology professor, who in 1998 proposed the creation of the neuroergonomics field.

In the past, ergonomics studies were confined to performance measures, such as error rates and reaction times. By taking advantage of brain imaging technology, pioneers in neuroergonomics hope to gain a broader window into mental workload, vigilance and other aspects of how the brain learns and processes information.

"Combining the neuroscience techniques allows us to expand our investigative powers," says Carryl Baldwin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Old Dominion University, who is applying neuroergonomics techniques to better understand mental workload and driving.

At this point, the fledgling field is more concept than reality, albeit that is quickly changing. One drawback is that most brain-imaging technology, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, remains costly and cumbersome to use. Parasuraman and other enthusiasts say that other more portable and cost-effective techniques are emerging, among them near infra-red spectroscopy (NIRS), which uses laser optics to measure brain function.

Not surprisingly, privacy concerns will quickly arise, particularly if brain imaging becomes sufficiently portable and affordable that individuals in high-stress occupations, such as pilots, can be monitored on the job, says psychologist Peter Hancock, DSc, a provost and distinguished research professor at the University of Central Florida. For now, psychologists and other medical professionals are beginning to explore brain function across a variety of tasks.

Drivers on the road

Easing mental workload and reducing driver distraction is particularly important given that last year 43,000 Americans were killed on the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Increasingly, drivers juggle cell phones and other driver distractions behind the wheel, says Arthur Kramer, PhD. In a study of 28 adults, to be published in Human Factors, Kramer and his colleagues monitored participants' eye movements while rapidly showing them a series of urban and suburban traffic scenes, some of which contained a meaningful change, such as a child darting between two cars. Meanwhile, the participants chatted with someone in another room via a clip-on microphone. Even when the participants looked at the appropriate part of the scene, they were less able while talking to process that there was a change, indicating that a hands-free approach didn't prevent cell phones from interfering with the drivers' concentration. "It's the thinking--involved with conversation--that appears to be somewhat problematic," Kramer says.

Neuroergonomics research also can pick up signs of mental strain, even when a driver's reaction time and other performance measures don't appear to be affected, Baldwin says. Using a driving simulator and a form of EEG measurement, called ERP for event-related potentials, Baldwin assessed the driving behaviors of 15 undergraduate students in simulated foggy and clear conditions. The fog did not appear to hinder the accuracy of their reactions, according to the research, to be published later this year in the Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. "But our physiological measure found that it was harder for them," Baldwin says.

Such insights into mental workload could ultimately help make driving safer, if they lead, for example, to the programming of cars to automatically activate a collision-avoidance system, Baldwin says. Such a system could send cell phone calls to voice mail to reduce mental workload on drivers during high traffic or bad weather situations.

Understanding how we work

As neuroergonomics researchers learn more about brain development, job training could be modified to even one day match people with the work best suited to their cognitive strengths, psychologists say.

Parasuraman points to a series of studies by English researchers involving London taxi drivers, who typically complete a couple of years of training prior to taking their licensing exams. A 1997 study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience (Vol. 17, No. 18) demonstrated, using positron emission tomography (PET) technology, activation of the hippocampus as drivers recalled complex routes they already knew. Subsequent magnetic resonance imaging research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 97, No. 8) found a link between driving experience and enlargement in a particular hippocampal region.

"We now know that the brain is highly plastic and can change with training," Parasuraman says. The next challenge for neuroergonomics, he says, is to isolate which types of training work best for spatially demanding jobs, such as air traffic control.

Studying the brains of highly trained experts could help reveal how all humans learn and retain information, adds James Becker, PhD, professor of psychiatry, neurology and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "We can begin to understand the cognitive components that go into particular jobs and particular tasks."

Monitoring vigilance

In today's increasingly automated workplace, maintaining mental acuity, known as vigilance, becomes increasingly important for a broad cross-section of fields--from airport security screeners to medical technicians, says Joel Warm, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati.

"These jobs look very simple because all you are doing is sitting there staring at a display," he says. "How hard can it be? Turns out it's very, very difficult."

Warm and his fellow researchers used transcranial Doppler sonography, a noninvasive ultrasound technique that monitors the brain's blood flow, to demonstrate the interconnection between brain activity and performance during a simulated air traffic control task.

When performance decreased among the 128 students involved in the study, published in 2003 in Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science (Vol. 4, Nos. 1-2), so did blood flow in the right hemisphere of the brain. "What people normally thought of as a repetitive understimulating situation really carries a very high degree of mental demand or mental load and it's reflected in the changes in blood flow," Warm says.

Long term, better understanding such physiological red flags could have practical applications, he says. You could monitor the blood flow of air traffic controllers or baggage inspectors, for example, to determine when they are fatigued and need to be relieved.

The big picture

As neuroergonomics evolves, protections need to ensure that critical brain information doesn't fall into the wrong hands, Parasuraman says. Indeed, privacy concerns raised by the field are among the issues discussed in a forthcoming book of essays, "Neuroergonomics: The Brain At Work" (Oxford University Press, 2005) that Parasuraman edited with Matthew Rizzo, MD, director of the University of Iowa's neuroergonomics division.

Take the current work environment, in which employers often retain rights to the intellectual property that their employees, such as software engineers, create on, and sometimes even off the job, says the University of Central Florida's Hancock, a contributor on the topic in Parasuraman's book. As neuroergonomics takes hold, employees must be protected, he says, so companies can't similarly have easy access to their cognitive information.

"This will be the ultimate challenge to privacy," Hancock says.

Still, Hancock believes that appropriate safeguards can be implemented. As long as they are, he says, the potential payoffs of exploring neuroergonomics--increased efficiency and safety--are too significant not to pursue.

Charlotte Huff is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas.