WASHINGTON, March 26 (UPI) — Fatigue and sleep deprivation can take a toll quickly on soldiers in combat conditions, such as those being experienced in Iraq, but the U.S. military is well aware of this problem and has implemented programs to improve soldier performance using both nutrition and drugs, experts said Wednesday.

“There is a lot of focus on performance enhancing,” Janice Rosado, a civilian physical scientist at the Natick Soldier Center’s Combat Feeding Directorate in Natick, Mass., told United Press International.

“Whatever we can do to give the war fighter an edge, we will do,” said Rosado, who is involved with research focused on developing nutritional supplements, such as energy bars and drinks, that might improve soldier performance.

The Army “wants to give (soldiers) every edge they possibly can and if they can find a safe, effective way of doing that through a performance-enhancing bar or drink they would want to do that,” she said.

Two products close to being in a soldier’s standard gear are an energy bar known as HooAH! (named after the famous military call) and a sports drink known as ERGO, for Energy Rich Glucose Optimized Drink.

These products consist mainly of carbohydrates and would be included in something called a first strike ration, Rosado said. The ration is intended to be used “for the first few days of conflict where soldiers are on the move and do not have time to stop and eat,” she said.

“It would be carb-loaded because it would be just for a few days when you really just need to be able to have a lot of carbs for energy,” she said.

Rosado’s department has done studies in conjunction with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine and found both HooAH! and ERGO increased physical performance, such as how far soldiers could go on a march, by 17 percent compared to soldiers who did not take the supplements.

The agencies plan to do further studies to determine if the products enhance cognitive performance, she said.

One factor that can impair cognitive performance significantly is lack of sleep, said David Dinges, chief of the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Sleep and Chronobiology and director of a research center for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research focused on developing drugs that can lessen the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation.

“Sleep deprivation impairs the brain, it impairs the ability to perform,” Dinges told UPI. “It can alter your ability to pay attention, you don’t respond as quickly … your ability to think quickly and accurately at the same time is slower.”

This can impact soldier performance and perhaps contribute to mistakes that lead to friendly fire incidents or other fatalities, he said.

One promising remedy may be a drug called modafinil that is approved for the treatment of excessive sleepiness in people with narcolepsy, Dinges said. His lab is “trying to understand whether that drug used in healthy people can promote cognitive capability but not have negative consequences.”

Dinges has conducted experiments with soldiers, in which they stayed awake for 88 hours or about 3.5 days, while taking modafinil. He could not divulge the details of the results because the study has not yet been published. However, he said, modafinil “looks promising.”

Although modafinil might not be the final solution for improving soldier performance under sleep deprivation conditions, Dinges said, “The potential for finding additional medicines that are very specifically targeting areas of brain that are involved in keeping you awake … is very, very good.”

“Over the next 10 years I think we’re going to see one or two things come along” that safely promote wakefulness, he said.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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