The need for speed and science: Virgin Hyperloop to benefit from WVU neuroscientists’ expertise on brain, body impacts

From WVU Today:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Before the first Virgin Hyperloop ride takes off, the brains behind pioneering neuroscience research at West Virginia University will help ensure the health and well-being of its passengers and operators.

After all, they’ll be traveling in pods through a vacuum tube – at speeds breaking 600 mph.

It sounds like science fiction. But it will be a reality grounded in science, as engineers develop and tweak the mover system that will disrupt modern transportation as we know it.

Tried-and-tested science won’t end there. Virgin Hyperloop plans to collaborate with the barrier-breaking Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at WVU to study how traveling at excessive speeds may impact the brain and body.

The RNI, led by Dr. Ali Rezai, has heralded numerous breakthroughs in recent years, ranging from first-of-its-kind procedures treating Alzheimer’s disease patients with focused ultrasound and those recovering from substance abuse through deep brain stimulation to predicting viral infections symptoms such as those associated with COVID-19 three days in advance through the use of wearable technology, a mobile app and artificial intelligence.

Making sense of the senses

RNI researchers have already established the framework and tools that Virgin Hyperloop can apply at its certification center, which will span nearly 800 acres in Tucker and Grant counties.

Construction of the Hyperloop Certification Center will begin in 2021 with a planned Welcome Center, Certification Track and Operations Center, Pod Final Assembly Facility, Production Development Test Center and Operations, Maintenance and Safety Training Center.

That’s where the tinkering until perfection takes place – before the system goes prime time. The plan is for Hyperloop to connect cities such as Pittsburgh and Chicago in 41 minutes, or New York City to Washington, D.C. in just 30 minutes.

Imagine zooming along at those 600 mph speeds in a tube with no windows. Or, better yet, operating the system itself. 

“These are super-high fast trains,” said Rezai, executive chair, vice president of neuroscience and associate dean of RNI. “Fundamentally, the RNI can collaborate with Virgin Hyperloop with a focus on safety, functionality and performance, for example, the neuroscience of workload, stress, cognitive ability and all other functions that can be quantified and measured, with respect to system users like passengers and operators.

“Human functions may be impacted by high speed and the perception of knowing how fast you are moving. Without windows and a frame of reference, a person’s balance, sensor, motor and other nervous systems function may be impacted as well. We’ll be looking at all of these factors in an integrated framework that measures physiological function and performance of the team and system operators and the passenger.”

Wearing it out

When the NBA restarted its 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World Resort over the summer, players had the option to wear a wedding band-like smart ring that could detect early COVID-19 symptoms. Months earlier, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the RNI teamed up with the ring maker, Oura Health, to develop a digital health platform to predict viral illness symptoms such as with COVID-19.

More than 600 healthcare professionals and first responders participated in the first phase of the RNI study. The rings worked. They monitored physiological data including temperature, breathing and heart patterns, and when coupled with the RNI mobile app and its Digital Health platform, effectively predicted viral illness symptoms such as those associated with coronavirus for up to three days before appearing, with over 80 percent accuracy.

The RNI has all kinds of wearable gadgets, from wristwatches to even clothing, that constantly monitor a person’s vitals and collect health data. By applying artificial intelligence and machine-learning to the data collected, the RNI team has predicted health outcomes and behaviors, such as cravings of patients recovering from substance abuse. In fact, before the COVID-19 pandemic, a large chunk of wearable technologies deployed by the RNI were geared toward patients overcoming opioid addiction and chronic pain.

Now the RNI may help to test these smart technologies for the Virgin Hyperloop project.

“We are going to use wearable technologies to quantify the physiology of humans,” Rezai said. “From eye trackers to body sensors to electrocardiograms and electroencephalograms, we can measure, quantify and make sense of what’s happening to the human body at 600 mph.”

“We will apply technologies that we have validated as state-of-the-art to measure physiological, cognitive, social, subjective and performance indicators,” said Dr. Scott Galster, director of applied research at RNI.

Smooth operator  

Galster came to WVU in 2017 to head up human performance research at RNI after an extensive background with the Air Force Research Laboratory and working with NCAA and professional sports teams. He is the mind behind the muscle.

At the RNI, he and his team have continued work with military personnel and athletes, including WVU sports teams, to study fatigue, resilience and recovery.

Similarly, Virgin Hyperloop operators are like athletes and soldiers. They’ll have a specific quest and must train to be fit, mentally and physically, to achieve that target. 

“We want to optimize operator performance by creating competency-based training systems, applying our knowledge of interactions with complex automated systems examining factors such as decision-making, mental models and trust,” Galster said.

RNI will also apply neuroergonomics – the study of the human brain in relation to behavioral performance in natural environments and settings – and cognitive engineering in the design and flow for the control center, Galster continued.

“We have, either internally or through our existing collaborator network, the ability to offer assistance in all aspects of the operational space for this exciting project,” he said.

Galster, too, emphasized that Virgin Hyperloop will provide two unique experiences – one for the passenger and one for the operator.

For passengers, the RNI can examine and offer recommendations on the point-to-point experience that Virgin Hyperloop will offer, he said. Examples include digital infrastructures to help from purchasing to arriving at your destination, environmental factors such as vibration, lighting, ergonomics, motion sickness, and the use of advanced recovery modalities during ride times. 

The ultimate goal, Galster said, is to “make the entire system operate safely and securely with maximum efficiency and enjoyment now and in the future.”

“The ecosystem we’ve established at West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute is already impacting individuals across different walks of life in improving not only their health and wellness, but job performance, recovery and readiness,” Rezai said. “At the Hyperloop Certification Center, we will be providing a scientific leadership role and guidance in characterizing and optimizing human safety and function related to this innovative hyperloop technology.”

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