Neuroplasticity in F16 fighter jet pilots

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Fighter jet pilots are exposed to numerous gravitational transitions, which have been shown to influence peripheral vestibular processing. This study investigated the effects of training and g-level transitions on neuroplasticity in fighter jet pilots. We compared 10 male fighter pilots with age-, gender-, and education-matched controls by means of a multimodal MRI protocol. Volumetric and morphometric gray matter, white matter, and cerebrospinal fluid measurements derived from T1 weighted images were evaluated. Whole-brain and region of interest based analysis of WM microstructure was performed using diffusion weighted imaging data. A hypothesis-free and a seed-based approach was used for analysis of resting-state functional connectivity, and finally, group differences in BOLD signal during a tennis and navigation imagery paradigm were analyzed from task-based functional MRI data. Statistical analyses included non-parametric permutation testing, threshold-free cluster enhancement, and a cluster-level familywise error rate to correct for multiple comparisons. We did not find significant group differences in tissue volume and WM microstructure. Hypothesis-free analysis of resting-state fMRI data showed a decreased connectivity between the left posterior middle temporal gyrus and the rest of the brain. Additionally, an increased functional connectivity was found between the seed in the right parietal operculum 2 and the left occipital lobe. During tennis imagery, fighter pilots showed a significant increase in activity in bilateral precuneus, left temporal pole, left inferior parietal lobule, left middle temporal gyrus, and right middle cingulate cortex. The finding of increased functional connectivity between vestibular- and visual brain areas suggests that increased exposure to conflicting sensory information, as experienced during flight, alters brain functional connectivity in a way such that both sensory modalities can better cooperate to solve conflicts in sensory information.
Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen