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DARPA MBA develops set of Biomarkers predicting Warfighter Readiness and performance in military missions

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a program helping the Department of Defense sustain and reinforce U.S. military readiness through the study of warfighter biology. The Measuring Biological Aptitude program seeks to understand biological processes and factors that could affect the performance of specialized military roles, according to DARPA. Service members are subject to extreme physical injury and mental stress, and their readiness and resilience is very important to the success of their missions. Therefore it is important for military to know the readiness on their soldiers. One of the ways to measure researchers are using is measuring biomarkers.


Any organism is a by-product of both its genetic makeup and the environment. In biology, a gene is a section of DNA that encodes a trait. The sum of an organism’s observable characteristics is their phenotype.  Therefore, a gene can exist in different forms across organisms. These different forms are known as alleles. The subsequent combination of alleles that an individual possesses for a specific gene is their genotype.   A key difference between phenotype and genotype is that, whilst genotype is inherited from an organism’s parents, the phenotype is not.Phenotypes result from the interaction of an individual’s genotype with the environment. In fact, environmental and physiological changes can cause the phenotype to change constantly throughout the life of an individual. The development and functioning of the central and peripheral nervous systems of all animals, including humans, are regulated by genomic and proteomic factors.


DARPA’s Measuring Biological Aptitude (MBA) program will try to measure what makes skillful personnel tick, so that the Department of Defense (DoD) can hone those skills and predict outcomes in other similar personnel. To make that happen the program will be used to correlate phenotypes in military personnel with measurable elements of their biology to understand and ultimately anticipate how they might perform in various situations over time.


This could help the Department of Defense enhance and sustain military readiness both by revolutionizing how troops train, perform, and recover, and by mitigating shortages of highly qualified candidates for extremely specialized roles. The anticipated outputs of the Measuring Biological Aptitude (MBA) program are a set of biomarkers — measurable indicators of biological processes — that correspond to traits of highly effective performance in a given role, along with new tools to measure and report on those biomarkers in real time. This information will enable individual warfighters to understand and affect the underlying biological processes that govern their success.


Measuring Biological Aptitude (MBA) aims to identify, understand, and monitor in real time the biology that underlies success in specialized roles. At its core, MBA seeks to shed light on the biological factors and processes that support peak performance in each of a set of military specializations. MBA technologies could improve training, team formation, mission performance, and post-mission recovery, yielding a better prepared, more effective, more resilient force.


The research will work backwards from phenotypes — that is, how an individual’s fixed genetic code expresses as externally observable cognitive, behavioral, or physical traits — and attempt to establish the biological mechanisms that translate underlying genetic makeup into phenotypic traits. Since our genotypes don’t translate directly into phenotypes, DARPA wants to use MBA to do much more than decoding the genome. MBA researchers are working to characterize relevant phenotypes across a range of skills.cAfter identifying phenotypes, DARPA will work on interpreting gene expression circuits, which are functional clusters of genes that impact each other’s expression. At present, those mechanisms of translation — also known as expression circuits — are largely a mystery. MBA researchers will develop new assays and technologies to monitor and report on the biomarkers that reveal the activity of key expression circuits.


“With existing technology scientists are able to read out genotype and measure and observe certain aspects of phenotype. Most of what happens in between is a black box,” said Eric Van Gieson, the MBA program manager. “DARPA believes that the information inside the box — these expression circuits — can be predictive of how an individual will respond to a given stimulus or scenario, and more importantly, we believe it will help inform the individual on how to improve their performance throughout their career.”


Researchers supporting MBA will initially analyze samples and other data collected from high-performing troops across select military specializations to identify biological signatures of successful performance in each of those roles and determine how they can be measured. For instance, maintaining a lowered heart rate during combat is a valuable trait and easily measured with existing wearable technology. Adaptable problem solving, resilience, and cognitive flexibility are extremely valuable, but less easily measured. MBA analyses should reveal an array of such traits and the expression circuits responsible for them.


The crux of MBA is correlating the externally observable physical, behavioral, and cognitive features and traits of highly successful specialized operators — their phenotypes — with measurable elements of their biology to understand and ultimately anticipate how they might perform in various situations over time; this information can then be used to improve training and development at an individual level. DARPA selected three teams to deliver on that vision: GE Research (GE), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Institute for Human Machine Cognition (IHMC).


Because an individual’s genetic code — or genotype — does not translate directly into phenotypes, DARPA requires MBA researchers to do far more than decode the genome. The MBA teams led by GE, under principal investigator Dr. Azar Alizadeh, and IHMC, under principal investigator Dr. Tim Broderick, are working backwards from observed measurements of military training among high performing troops to characterize relevant phenotypes across a range of specializations. After identifying phenotypes, they will work to elucidate the current black boxes of human biology known as gene expression circuits, which are the molecular mechanisms by which genotype translates into phenotypes; expression circuits are made up of epigenetic, transcriptomic, proteomic, metabolomic, and other systems that have major impacts on performance and resilience. The teams will also attempt to identify one or more measurable biomarker for each circuit, determine the rates at which those biomarkers change, and build novel sensors to measure changes in real time.


An individual may have genes that would seem to predict success in a role, yet not manifest the traits or behaviors expected. MBA research is designed to uncover additional biological mechanisms that influence phenotypic expression and build tools to measure those changes so that it becomes possible to more accurately impact performance and resilience under a range of scenarios,” said Van Gieson.


Much of the upfront work on MBA entails collecting and anonymizing data for phenotypic analysis. GE and IHMC will gather physical, biological, and cognitive performance data from active military cohorts during a mix of training events and routine scenarios. The data include audio and video recordings; biological samples; readouts from wearable health and fitness sensors that measure physical activity, sleep, heart rate, and physiological load; and results of standardized cognitive and behavioral assessments that measure factors related to fluid intelligence, executive function, memory, learning, attention, and processing speed. GE and IHMC will also provide medical guidance as part of any human study through an embedded genetic counselor, sports therapist, or similar specialist to help individuals make sense of results.


Elucidating the gene expression circuits that drive a given phenotype requires a new class of analytical techniques that can handle billions of variables. Ultimately, analytics must reveal when and how key measurements of biomarkers should be made to guide the teams in their development of sensors suitable for long-term use. GE is initially developing a microneedle system worn across the body; IHMC is developing a dental overlay. Both teams will reassess their sensing approaches as the program progresses based on refined understanding of what biomarkers are significant.


Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will conduct independent validation and verification (IV&V) of the other teams’ results, hardware, and processes to confirm they are operationally relevant. The IV&V work includes testing the functional lifetime of MBA sensors and evaluating their user interfaces to understand potential failure modes and opportunities for misinterpretation of results.


“One of DARPA’s goals for MBA is to take the technology we develop and place it immediately into the hands of military operators and cadres when the program ends,” Van Gieson said. “Our systems need to be functional and validated from Day One so that even a novice operator can use them appropriately and trust the data they provide.”


In the final phase of the MBA program, GE and IHMC will demonstrate their systems in trials with military service members. DARPA requires that the systems outperform the traditional selection processes carried out by military cadres.The MBA program benefits from consultations with independent advisors in the ethical, legal, social, and regulatory aspects of the work, with particular emphases on privacy, data protection, and responsible utilization of data by anyone with access.


MBA impact on Military readiness

If DARPA succeeds, the resulting MBA system could support military readiness in various ways. The first improvement relates to how the military initially evaluates recruits and subsequently develops candidates for specialized roles. Many of these roles currently suffer from shortages of qualified candidates, even as more pervasive use of complex technologies and an expanding set of mission profiles are increasing demand for uniquely skilled personnel.


For at least the past 50 years, initial assessment of military service members has remained essentially unchanged, comprising a basic medical screening, a standardized physical readiness test, and a written test known as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) for enlisted personnel. Scores on the ASVAB feed into the preliminary determination of an individual’s qualification for certain military occupational specialties. As a service member’s career advances, future placement into other roles does not follow a prescribed protocol and can be based in large part on subjective measures.


Against this backdrop, MBA technology could increase the objectivity of the criteria used by military selection committees, remove biases, and raise the baseline of performance for incoming recruits. Additionally, by taking biology into account, the results from MBA measurements could reveal to individuals career options that might not be apparent based on commonly accepted, externally observable traits alone.


The second improvement ties to training, both before and after an individual pursues a military career. MBA technology could allow a user to assess his or her personal potential for specialized roles and proactively nurture the traits that are characteristic of successful performers. “Genotypes are fixed, but phenotypes are not. Biology is fundamentally adaptable, and that is the key to enabling performance improvements,” Van Gieson said. “What we’re planning to deliver with MBA is a set of continuously updated information that empowers individuals to track their progress throughout their careers and quickly identify what aspects of training and preparation are the most productive.”


Third, during missions commanders could employ real-time reporting of changes in service members’ biomarkers to inform how a military operation unfolds, adding a layer of biological awareness to provide a more complete assessment of the mission space. Commanders could shift resources or adjust strategies and tactics based on how squad members are performing. Following a mission, biomarker reporting could likewise guide recovery practices and indicate potential health issues.


The overall MBA program will be informed by consultations with independent expert advisors in the ethical, legal, social, and regulatory aspects of the work, with particular emphases on privacy, data protection, and responsible utilization of data by individuals. MBA performer teams will be required to provide medical guidance as part of any human study through an embedded genetic counselor, sports therapist, or similar specialist.


“Human beings are extremely complex, and although we expect to gain valuable new insights by measuring biology, we also understand that people are not locked into predetermined fates,” Van Gieson explained. “Any breakthroughs we achieve in the MBA program will necessarily be used to address shortages in critical roles by expanding opportunities, not limiting them. If we can provide people with information on their unique biology, and empower them to affect and measure gains in key traits, we’ll have opened career pathways that they may not have previously considered.”



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