Helping fighter pilots stay alert on long missions

By Jan Jarvis

Dr Singh in lab
 
Compounds that could make it easier for sleep-deprived pilots to stay alert during long missions are being studied by researchers at UNT Health Science Center and Savannah State University.

Researchers are also looking at how the same compound could also be used to relieve cognitive impairment associated with Gulf War Illness.

Meharvan Singh, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience, is teaming up with Kai Shen, PhD, from Savannah State University to address health issues that can affect those who served in the military.

The two projects total $1.3 million in grants and are funded by the Department of Defense.

The researchers want to show that the compounds can help Air Force pilots stay alert, even when their circadian rhythms are thrown off by time changes, long flights and sleep disturbances inherent to their constant state of readiness.

The compounds also hold promise as a way to relieve the cognitive impairment associated with Gulf War Illness, a unique chronic health disorder with multiple symptoms associated with fatigue, muscular pain and gastrointestinal problems.

Such a drug is needed for sleep-deprived pilots, whose job demands that they stay alert and attentive to every detail while flying no matter how tired they are, Dr. Singh said.

“An Air Force pilot has to be vigilant when flying,” he said. “But there’s evidence to support that when sleep cycles are disrupted it can lead to cognitive challenges and impairment.”

Unlike shift workers, who may also experience sleep deprivation on a regular basis, pilots face very unpredictable schedules and changes in rest patterns all the time. How this disruption in biological rhythms impacts cognitive function will be explored as part of the research.

The second study focuses on how the compound could be beneficial to those who have developed cognitive degradation after serving in the Gulf War. Gulf War Illness, whose symptoms include memory loss, learning deficits and motor impairment, is reported to exist in more than 25 percent of veterans who served in the Gulf War.

The compound being investigated targets a specific protein called the sigma 1 receptor.

“When activated, this protein can have a protective effect on the brain,” Dr. Singh said.

Dr. Shen was part of a faculty mentoring program – the Steps Towards Academic Research, or STAR program) – housed within the Texas Center for Health Disparities at UNT Health Science Center. The program, directed by Drs. Jamboor Vishwanatha and Harlan Jones, is aimed at partnering junior faculty with experienced faculty in support of their professional development, particularly in the area of research. Dr. Singh served as mentor to Dr. Shen.

Dr. Shen highly praised Dr. Singh, the STAR program and Dr. Chellu Chetty, Associate Vice President for Sponsored Research at Savannah State, for their generous help that resulted in the funding of the two grant proposals.

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