The military has long dreamed of a super soldier who doesn’t need to sleep and still stays alert and ready. A new research project at the Army Research Office may be making that sci-fi abstract something a little closer to reality.
The ARO is at the beginning of a five-year effort working with researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Wisconsin to study a newly discovered system in the brain.
“This project is an attempt to understand the connections between the glymphatic system,” Matthew Munson, program manager for fluid dynamics at ARO told Federal News Network. “We want to understand the role that sleep plays in this system and potential for it to be an enabler to increase solider cognition when they have to be awake for a long time or to increase the quality of the sleep they get when they are only able to get short amounts of sleep.”
The team is comprised of neurophysiologists, neuroscientists, mechanical engineers, experimentalists and theorists. The team has been working on the glymphatic system, but only started working under Army direction in August.
The ARO is looking at how the brain handles waste from its cells. In short, sleep may act as one big toilet flush for the brain when it comes to waste removal in the newly recognized glymphatic system.
“The brain is made up of cells, those cells do metabolic processes just like any other cells in your body,” Munson said. “As a byproduct of that metabolism they have to get rid of waste products. If the waste products were to stay in the brain environment they would quickly poison the brain and cause the brain not to function.”
For a long time it was debated how the brain actually performed the function. Researchers found the glymphatic system in 2012.
“The system consists of a network that piggybacks on the brain’s blood circulation system and is comprised of layers of plumbing, with the inner blood vessel encased by a ‘tube’ that transports cerebrospinal fluid,” an ARO release states. “The system pumps the fluid through brain tissue primarily during sleep, washing away toxic proteins and other waste.”
Munson said the Army took notice of the study, and began to think about understanding its function or even controlling it.
Munson said the Army is still far away from conducting experiments with soldiers.
“We don’t necessarily understand whether these hypotheses we are making are going to test to be true,” Munson said. “If we can understand the shape of the glymphatic system and the response of the glymphatic system to forces and pressures and sheer stresses and the mechanical environment then one might be able to think of ways to prescreen people to figure out if a person is going to be impacted by the amount of sleep they get by their natural physiology.”
For example, a commander might be able to pick out two soldiers who have a predisposition to a better glymphatic system for an overnight mission.
Another potential is the possibility for pharmaceutical treatments to help people in high-stress wakefulness conditions to maintain their cognitive abilities.