Hum Factors. 2023 Dec;65(8):1804-1820. doi: 10.1177/00187208211054894. Epub 2021 Dec 5.


BACKGROUND: Stress affects learning during training, and virtual reality (VR) based training systems that manipulate stress can improve retention and retrieval performance for firefighters. Brain imaging using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) can facilitate development of VR-based adaptive training systems that can continuously assess the trainee’s states of learning and cognition.

OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to model the neural dynamics associated with learning and retrieval under stress in a VR-based emergency response training exercise.

METHODS: Forty firefighters underwent an emergency shutdown training in VR and were randomly assigned to either a control or a stress group. The stress group experienced stressors including smoke, fire, and explosions during the familiarization and training phase. Both groups underwent a stress memory retrieval and no-stress memory retrieval condition. Participant’s performance scores, fNIRS-based neural activity, and functional connectivity between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and motor regions were obtained for the training and retrieval phases.

RESULTS: The performance scores indicate that the rate of learning was slower in the stress group compared to the control group, but both groups performed similarly during each retrieval condition. Compared to the control group, the stress group exhibited suppressed PFC activation. However, they showed stronger connectivity within the PFC regions during the training and between PFC and motor regions during the retrieval phases.

DISCUSSION: While stress impaired performance during training, adoption of stress-adaptive neural strategies (i.e., stronger brain connectivity) were associated with comparable performance between the stress and the control groups during the retrieval phase.

PMID:34865562 | DOI:10.1177/00187208211054894