Meet the Scientists: Dr. Jean Vettel

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development.  The greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time.  If you have someone you’d like AWS to highlight for this segment, email Jessica L. Tozer at science@dma.mil.

(Photo provided by the Army Research Lab/Released)

Dr. Jean Vettel. (Photo provided by the Army Research Lab/Released)

WHO: Dr. Jean Vettel. As a “year round cyclist,” she lives by the Orwellian-esque philosophy of “four wheels good, two wheels better” (literally, she rides her bike in all weather). She is a neuroscientist with an aim on understanding the brain in a very interesting way.  She has a bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon and a PhD from Brown UniversityA brain who studies the brain is a good thing, indeed.

TITLE: Dr. Vettel is a team leader with the Translational Neuroscience Branch at the Army Research Lab.  Officially she is a manager, but Dr. Vettel likes to be known more as a scientist than a manager.

MISSION:  Dr. Vettel’s group focuses on trying to improve soldier performance by developing technologies that use information about the brain.  They sit under the Army Materiel Command.  Dr. Vettel and her team focus on trying to come up with a way to record brain signals and use those brain signals to track dynamic fluctuations in brain performance and brain states to improve performance.

So…what does all of that mean?

“Okay, so say, for example, you’re sitting down at the computer and you know you have to respond to email or something.  If overall we could detect a brain state where you’re not attending to the thing that you’re reading – so you’re not actually processing what you’re reading – then it would be lovely to give you a little alert.  That way you’re not wasting your time.  You’re not reading this email when you’re not focused.”

Really?  So is this like when you read a whole page of a book and then you realize you committed literally none of it to memory?

“Exactly.  We think there are neural signatures that can essentially capture that attention wandering.”

What’s your role in developing this neuroscience research and development?

“The translational neuroscience research program in the Army actually has three research thrust areas.  I am the scientific lead for one of them. It’s called brain structure function couplings, and that term means that we’re trying to understand how these new ways to image the brain can be used to understand individual differences.”

“There’s a technology called diffusion-weighted imaging; we put people into an MRI scanner – most people have been in an MRI machine for a different part of their body in an injury – and we can use that same scanner to study the brain.”

“This diffusion-weighted imaging scan tracks the diffusion of water in the brain.  What we do is we infer that the brain is constrained in its movement based on where these white matter fiber tracks are in the brain.  You can think of it as the wiring of the brain.  Everybody’s brain is wired differently. We think that a lot of those differences, and how we approach tasks, can be tracked by differences in our structural connections in the brain.”

What’s goal, or the mission, of this research?  What do you hope it will achieve?

“What we hope it will achieve is the ability to quickly do a few scans, collect some data on a new individual, a new soldier in the Army.  We’ll then be able to understand ways in which their brain works, so that we can design what we call individual-specific neuro-technologies (the buzzword as it were) for something that they put on their head.”

How will you do that?

Dr. Jean Vettel explains how parts of the brain are utilized differently.  Her findings contribute to the mission of helping better improve soldier performance by understanding the individual workings of the brain.  (Photo provided by the Army Research Lab/Released)

Dr. Jean Vettel explains how parts of the brain are utilized differently. Her findings contribute to the mission of helping better improve soldier performance by understanding the individual workings of the brain. (Photo provided by the Army Research Lab/Released)

“So, imagine these sensors are embedded in a helmet.  The soldier can just put the helmet on like they do now.  The helmet’s only different in that it can now record brain activity.  Then, based on what we’ve learned, from their structural information and then some preliminary functional information about their brain function, we can then customize this helmet – the sensors in their helmet, and then the algorithms we use to analyze those signals.  Then we’re able to track these changes in states.  In addition to the attention state, our group has also done a lot of work on target detection.  There’s a brain signature that occurs whenever people are looking for images.”

“Say for example you’re looking on the web for a picture of someone, or you’re doing research.  You know what you’re looking for but you’re waiting to find it.  Whenever you find your target, there’s a signature that goes off, a neural signature – a P300 – and we’re able to track that in real time.  We can also use these sensors to detect these signals of the target detection so that we can aid people in the speed with which they do their task.”

So you’re scientifically helping people to discover themselves.

“Right, that’s essentially right. I thought about that earlier, actually, about whether it’s a true statement that we’re trying to provide a lot of introspection that a lot of people don’t do regarding their activities, to quantify their internal reflection.  I think that misses some subtleties of what we do, but I think its general that’s probably true. So, you don’t know that you’re not paying attention, wouldn’t it be great if you knew? Or you don’t know that you just saw a target, wouldn’t it be great if you knew?”

In your own words, what is it about your work that makes it so significant?

“There’s a lot of organization of brain tissue that’s preserved across people, which is amazing because everyone’s brains look so different to the naked eye.  What neuroscience across the last century has really been focused on is trying to understand those generalized principles that are common across people.  And that’s great.  We’ve learned a lot about the brain.  But the challenge is, as we focus on Army relevance in neuroscience, we need to be able to improve the performance of a given soldier.”

Why is that a challenge?

“Anyone who has done neuroscience will tell you that no single subject looks like the group average.  What we publish on is the group average, what’s common across people. But, if you want to go into a given individual and find out how this brain is going to work, then those generalized models fail. What’s really exciting about what we’re doing is we’re saying ‘look, we’re not going to wash out these individual differences’.  Instead we’re going to focus on them.  We’re not going to worry about the fact that our result might not generalize across the entire population. We want our results to be specific to that individual so we can design what I’m calling these individual-specific neuro-technologies.”

“That means that I’m going to expect – and almost celebrate – the fact that if I take that same system for one person and put it on someone else’s’ head that it’s going to fail. I’m not going to consider that a weakness in my science, I’m going to consider this a strength.”

You could call this Special Snowflake Technology and it would be applicable here.  So how could you use your research to aid the military and help with military missions?

“What we’re hoping is that our technologies can be used in a couple of domains.  One of the places that is really a critical concern for the Army is training. We don’t specifically work on training.  However, a lot of our approaches are relevant for TBI, and a lot of our approaches are also relevant for training. We really hope that we’ll start understanding what brain signatures we need to track that will capture meaningful, or task-relevant, changes in brain states. For example, a brain state may tell us whether someone is actually learning something.  If we can understand some general principles of when how people are learning and we can track that, then we’ll be able to optimize their training.”

This diagram illustrates generalized information about localized brain function.  (Photo from the Army Research Lab/ Released)

This diagram illustrates generalized information about localized brain function. (Photo from the Army Research Lab/ Released)

Amazing!  Many people could really benefit from knowing their mental limits (e.g. being more of a visual learner, or needing more sleep, etc).

“Yes! The challenge that we now face is I don’t think we’re going to find any one thing that works for everybody.  In terms of dreaming, absolutely this would be a fantastic way that we could improve ways that people do schooling.  I would certainly love something that would tell me if I was too tired to do something I was about to do.  That would be great.”

What do you think is the most impressive or beneficial thing about this research and why?

“I really do think that the focus on the individual is great.  Our other focus is trying to actually understand the brain in real life settings. There’s growing evidence that whenever you try to increase the complexity of the brain process, the findings you have from laboratory don’t hold up in real world scenarios.  We’re not scared of that.”

“We’re able to lose the focus on how the brain works and we’re able to focus on what signals of the brain are meaningful.”

Are you working on any other projects right now?

“We talked about brain structure function couplings, and I’m a lead for that research area, so it’s really not possible for me to do things other than that. We have a bunch of research kicking off to look at different functional connectivity measures to understand performance, but I’m sure that’s too jargony.  Basically, we’re going to try and see if we can use some of these new methods for looking at variations in brain networks to see if we can track those brain networks just by using data from the scalp, instead of having to put people in MRI machines.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“One of the unique things about being an Army scientist as compared to an academic scientist, is that I spend a lot of time having to do visioning for what science we might need for Army 2040, or what science are you going to have ready in Army 2030.  So I would probably go to 2075 or 2100 in time, just to have a sense of what’s going on there so I can have some basis for how I should do all this visioning as a thirty-something.  This is because usually I’m asked to look farther out in time than I have been a scientist, and I don’t think that’s fair!”

Thanks to Dr. Jean Vettel for contributing to this article, and for her contributions to the science and technological communities.

Publications:

Scientific Accomplishments for ARL Brain Structure-Function Couplings Research on Large-Scale Brain Networks
Fiber Segment-Based Degradation Methods for a Finite Element-Informed Structural Brain Network
Physics-Based Models of Brain Structure Connectivity Informed by Diffusion-Weighted Imaging
Brain Structure-function Couplings (FY11)
Mission-based Scenario Research: Experimental Design And Analysis
(V2) Mission-Based Scenario Research: Experimental Design and Analysis
Human Research and Engineering Directorate, Major Laboratory Programs: Current Thrust Areas and Recent Research
Augmenting Test and Evaluation Assessments Using Eye-Tracking and Electroencephalography  

Jessica L. Tozer is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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