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NAMRU-Dayton environmental physiology team tackles naval aviation’s top priority: Physiological episodes

Story by Megan Mudersbach
Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton

By: Dr. Richard D. Arnold, Director, Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, NAMRU-Dayton

Protecting aircrew against a wide range of physiologic challenges posed by the tactical aviation environment is a primary driver of research priorities at Naval Medical Research Unit – Dayton. With the growth of unexplained physiologic episodes (PE) being reported across U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force aircraft platforms, NAMRU-Dayton is responding to the challenge. We are rapidly expanding our environmental physiology research capacity by adding experienced altitude effects researchers and developing new laboratory facilities.

The Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL) at NAMRU-Dayton expanded its research portfolio of PE related studies from about five per year prior to fiscal year 2017 to 25 unique PE related research protocols in fiscal year 2018. Research topics include the effects of barometric pressure changes, the effects of variable breathing gas mixtures, and the effects of breathing resistance on aircrew physiology and performance. The lab is developing and testing a range of physiologic, gas, and chemical sensors for use as in-flight PE detection and mitigation tools.

NAMRL is not alone in the fight to understand and mitigate PEs. The Environmental Health Effects Laboratory (EHEL) at NAMRU-Dayton is conducting research to characterize the potential role of chemical contaminants in PEs. EHEL is collaborating with NAMRL to conduct more extreme environmental exposure protocols than NAMRL can accomplish through its human-use research program.

NAMRU-Dayton is strengthening collaborative relationships with Department of Defense laboratories including Naval Medical Research Center, Naval Health Research Center, Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory, NAMRU- San Antonio, Naval Air Warfare Center (Aircraft and Training Systems divisions), Navy Experimental Diving Unit, USAF 711th Human Performance Wing, and US Army Aeromedical Laboratory. Additionally, NAMRU-Dayton is working with academia and industry partners including Case Western Reserve University, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and KBRwyle to conduct research and development (R&D) in response to the rise of in-flight physiologic episodes.

The command continues to receive R&D support from long-term line stakeholders like NAVAIR. More recently, non-traditional sponsors of aeromedical research such as Defense Health Agency (DHA) and Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) have enabled the lab to mount a substantial response to the threat of PEs to DoD aircrew.

In support of the lab’s planned research NAMRL is constructing a new respiratory physiology laboratory that will aid studies on the effects of four factors; (1) variable breathing gas mixtures, (2) in-line breathing resistance, (3) breathing gas pressure and flow disruptions, and (4) flight equipment fit on aircrew physiology and cognitive function. To support these initiatives NAMRL is building several aircraft-specific life support system (LSS) simulators to reproduce the breathing environments of the T-45 and F/A-18 aircraft, for example.

Due to this surge in PE-related research NAMRL has added a number of senior scientific staff with experience in respiratory physiology research. Most recently Drs. Dan Warkander and Barbara Shykoff joined the team, bringing collectively over 40 years of research experience in respiratory physiology and life support system design through their previous work at University of Buffalo and Navy Experimental Diving Unit. Such additions to the staff bolster an already excellent cadre of altitude effects researchers.

Research experts at NAMRU-Dayton are equipped to lead the Navy’s research response to in-flight physiologic episodes our military is facing.

For more information visit us at www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmrc/Dayton and follow us on Facebook @NavalMedicalResearchUnitDayton and Twitter @NAMRUDayton.

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