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While the enemy will waste time sleeping

Science / A project by the US Department of Defense, which was recently revealed, aims to give soldiers the ability to stay awake for seven days in a row

old soldier
old soldier

The US Department of Defense is running a research program aimed at enabling US Army soldiers to function for many days without sleep. The research, managed by the US Department of Defense's Advanced Military Projects Agency (DARPA), was conducted at several research institutes and universities. He was recently revealed in an investigation by the ABC network,

Humans spend an average of about a third of their lives sleeping and cannot exist for a long time without sleep. Lack of sleep causes a decrease in physical and mental function. The longer the person is awake, the greater his difficulty in concentrating and performing complex tasks and his tendency to confusion and forgetfulness increases. Lack of sleep has been mentioned in the context of famous accidents such as the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster and the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and many traffic accidents are caused every month by the impaired performance of tired drivers.

Functioning in sleep-deprived situations has occupied armies for a long time. The ability of soldiers to function effectively over time can tip the scales during combat. Acquiring the ability to continue fighting continuously, without the need to replace exhausted forces with new ones, may guarantee a fundamental advantage against the opponent. During World War II, the armies of the United States, Great Britain and Germany used amphetamines (stimulating drugs) in order to allow the soldiers to maintain alertness. In the ABC investigative article, it is stated that the chief doctor of the US Air Force recently admitted that a certain use of narcotic drugs still exists today in the US military. Now the US Department of Defense is trying to go one step further.

In a document recently published by the Ministry of Defense, it is stated that "the elimination of the need for sleep during a (military) operation... will lead to a fundamental change in the nature of combat and the manner in which forces are deployed." The stated goal of the study: achieving alertness, without a noticeable decrease in function, for seven days. This is indeed an ambitious goal, but it must be remembered that the DARPA agency in charge of the project is the body that gave birth to innovations such as the Internet and the stealth plane. Financing and management of ambitious and future projects are her specialty. The research includes different and diverse lines of thinking: from genetic manipulation to the stimulation of the brain by magnetic fields.

One of the first places that scientists turned to in search of a "medicine for sleep" is the animal world. Dolphins, for example, live in water and breathe air, so they must stay awake continuously at all hours of the day. In order to do this, the scientists speculate, certain parts of the dolphin's brain go into a sleep-like state and other parts take over their roles. This way the dolphin maintains alertness and regularly rises to the surface of the water to breathe.

The Marine Mammal Division of the US Navy is primarily involved in training dolphins and sea lions for underwater search missions. In this department, advanced Positron Emission Tomography imaging of the dolphins' brains is performed for the research project, with the aim of understanding the mechanism that allows them to maintain continuous vigilance. Another study was done with killer whales (Orca Whales). In this species of whales, mothers and their offspring have been observed to maintain full alertness for the first three to four weeks after birth.

Another study examines the abilities of sparrow birds of a species found in the American West. These birds are able to function without sleep during their migration - about five to seven days. Even when the birds are in a cage they do not sleep during the period when they were supposed to migrate. The group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin attached sensors to the brains of the birds and subjected them to various tests. According to the researchers, "the initial results show that the birds do not show signs of a decrease in performance during this time (of continuous vigilance)".

The animal research is only the first step in the project. Along with understanding the mechanisms that animals use to overcome lack of sleep, the research program turns to the real challenge: imparting these abilities to humans. One method the researchers are looking into is genetic manipulation. According to the theory, the human genome contains many genes that are not expressed in humans; They are sometimes called "genetic garbage". The suspicion is that these genes are responsible for traits that once existed in humans and disappeared. These traits are expressed in other animals. A group of DARPA scientists is working to locate the genes responsible for the ability to function without sleep in mice and flies, in order to isolate them and test whether they also exist in humans. If these genes are found, the researchers claim, it may be possible to "activate" them and achieve resistance to lack of sleep in humans.

A different method for overcoming the sleep problem is by using chemical substances that affect the functioning of the brain. The alertness and stimulant drugs that were used in the past are limited in their capabilities, and as part of the project an attempt was made to produce new materials with improved capabilities. Modafinil, a recently developed compound sold as a drug under the name Provigil, allows people to maintain alertness for 48 consecutive hours. The compound was originally developed as a cure for the disease narcolepsy, whose sufferers are prone to attacks of a sudden and intense need for sleep. The drug is currently consumed by about a quarter of a million people. The research focuses on trying to increase the effectiveness of the compound on which the drug is based, and compounds similar to it, to allow prolonged alertness without causing damage or serious side effects to the user.
A team of researchers from Columbia University, participating in the project, is examining the use of projecting magnetic waves directly into the brain. The researchers claim that prolonged alertness is the result of increased activity in certain areas of the brain. According to the researchers, the key lies in the recognition that some people deal with lack of sleep much better than others. Those people can continue to function longer without sleep and without significantly impairing their abilities. The researchers use an advanced magnetic imaging system to identify the active areas in the brains of subjects with high resistance to sleep deprivation.

After the mapping is finished, the researchers will try to stimulate these areas in the brains of people who are not highly resistant to sleep deprivation and will measure the effect of the stimulation. The brain stimulation will be done in a process called transcranial magnetic stimulation. The stimulation is created by a magnetic field, which is concentrated in the desired area of ​​the brain and activates the nerve cells in that area. The method works successfully as a means of treating severe clinical depression, by activating areas of the brain that are not active enough. Similarly, the researchers will try to activate the areas identified as being associated with increased vigilance. A group of approximately 75 soldiers is to serve as an initial experimental group for this method in the next stages of the research.

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