Omega-3 study aims to improve cognitive processes in Soldiers
By Desiree Dillehay, Fort Benning Public Affairs /
Second lieutenants entering Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course at Fort Benning can now participate in a study that will determine if omega-3 supplementation improves cognitive processes in high-performing warfighters.
The Ranger Resilience and Improved Performance on Phospholipid bound Omega-3’s study, conducted by the Medical University of South Carolina, is a voluntary, double-blind placebo trial that started Aug. 1 and will last until Spring 2018, said Bernadette Marriott, Ph.D., professor and director of the Nutrition Section, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at MUSC.
“We’re assessing cognitive processes. Specifically, we are studying concepts such as decision-making and attention and impulsivity, and we’re doing this with computer-based cognitive tests,” said Marriott. “We’re hoping to learn if we can improve cognitive performances under stress, because these young people, who are going through IBOLC and Ranger (school), are clearly under stress during specific times in their programs. We’re testing them during those times.”
“One of the things that enticed us with letting (MUSC) do this (study) is that their protocol specifically targets our population as top performing, tactical athletes,” said Capt. Jeffrey Wismann, Platoon Leader Academy officer in charge and commander of C Company, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment. “What is unique in this study is we are testing this on what we consider some of our highest tier performers by selecting Infantry officers as the test group. And we still want to see if we see a relative increase in their performance, specifically their cognitive performance, as a result of supplementation.”
According to Marriott, participants will first be briefed and have the opportunity to ask questions before signing up and conducting their baseline testing.
Once they are in the study, they will be randomized into the placebo and experimental groups and will receive their first eight-week supply of capsules. At eight weeks, they’ll check in with the MUSC team for their assessments and receive their next eight-week supply. Participants will also be assessed before and after Ranger School.
“For anyone who volunteers to be in the study, they have a fifty-fifty chance of being in the placebo or the experimental group. Everybody gets capsules. Some of the capsules have macadamia nut oil in them and others have krill oil in them. The krill oil is very high in omega-3’s. Macadamia nut oil has no omega-3’s,” said Marriott. “The fact that it is double-blind means that it’s blinded to the participants, (and also) to myself and all of the staff.”
MUSC worked with IBOLC leadership to determine recruitment strategies, such as giving a free six-month supply of the omega-3 supplements to participants when they finish the study, added Marriott. Wismann said that IBOLC supported the clinical team in determining how to program the protocol into the course. “Another way that we helped them was they need to make assessments related around specific physical events embedded in our course, and we helped them identify what those key and critical times are so they can get their best research results.”
“Through both training and equipping, we attempt to give our Soldiers every tactical and strategic advantage that we can on the battlefield. What we want is a capability overmatch,” said Wismann.
“In the past, when we talk about a capability overmatch, we are talking about platforms – a weapon system with a greater range or greater explosive power, a threat defeat system, better armor or counter IED equipment,” he added. “Now with the human dimension, with studies like this, we’re attempting to invest that same tactical and strategic advantage into the Soldiers themselves, so that they can perform at their peak and in a manner that gives them the ability to make better decisions, or to run faster, or to process quickly, (and) that allows them to maintain momentum and maintain tactical initiative.”
“It’s extremely important for all of our combat arms leaders to be able to exercise cognitive dominance, because it is no longer just a matter of getting to the front lines, of getting to the fight, they now have to be able to make potentially, not only life-altering, but strategic decisions at the lowest levels at the front lines while physically exhausted,” Wismann said.
“And the omega-3 study potentially has long-term impacts. It can make long-term adjustments to physiology that allows the brain processes to work more efficiently and effectively. And we’re trying to prove that,” he added.
According to a protocol paper developed by MUSC, the various assessments will measure inhibition and rule-monitoring, attention and information processing speed, psychological resiliency, working memory, reasoning, vigilance, focused visual attention, anxiety and mood state.
According to Marriott, at the end of the study, the de-identified, aggregated data will be made available to IBOLC and Ranger School officials. The results will also be published in scientific journals and made available to the study volunteers and other interested organizations.
“If we see particular cognitive differences, not only because of omega-3 fatty acids, but if we see specific cognitive areas where training may help performance, we also will provide that data to IBOLC and Ranger School leaders,” she added.