Jet lag is nature’s reminder that while humans can fly around the world, they still leave their body clocks at home. It’s taxing enough for most of us, but particularly so for military personnel — such as pilots and special forces — who may be deployed to distant locations on short notice.
DARPA, the Pentagon’s pet research agency, thinks it has a solution: bioimplants that will not just fight fatigue and disorientation, but also stop bacteria that afflict soldiers with diarrhea.
Home remedies for jet lag abound, such as taking melatonin tablets or adjusting a traveler’s sleep schedule before the flight. But none of them are practical for military use. “Current mechanisms for physically adapting circadian rhythms to new environments focus on extensive pre-deployment preparation, sleep hygiene, and exposure to intense light; however, these interventions require precise timing and fixed equipment that can limit maneuverability and are impractical when coordinating large numbers of people,” according to the DARPA research solicitation. “Consequently, such interventions rarely exceed the body’s natural acclimation rate of one day for every hour the clock is shifted.”
The Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) project aims to develop jet lag-fighting technology based on existing medical implants such as pacemakers, pumps and ingestible sensors. DARPA envisions a “travel adapter for the human body, an implantable or ingestible bioelectronic carrier that contains therapeutic cellular factories and biomolecules which can provide warfighters control over their own physiology. The integrated system will house multiple capabilities that typically require lengthy preparation or cold chains such as instant antibiotic production, in vivo toxin removal from ingested resources, and enhanced warfighter acclimation to jet lag or shift lag.”
And that other scourge of overseas travel: adapting to local food and water that disagrees with your tummy? DARPA has reason to fix that, too. One study found that 77 percent of troops in Iraq, and 54 percent in Afghanistan, suffered from diarrhea, with 40 percent of the victims requiring hospitalization.
“ADAPTER will manage a warfighter’s circadian rhythm, halving the time to reestablish normal sleep after a disruption such as jet lag or shift lag,” DARPA promises. “It will also provide safe food and water by eliminating the top five bacterial sources of traveler’s diarrhea.”
There may be a few obstacles to military bioimplants, such as the right of soldiers to not insert medical devices into their bodies, or the possibility that these implants could be hacked. That the ADAPTER project will span 4.5 years suggests the challenge of designing a safe, effective device to combat jet lag and bad food will be a formidable one.
Yet if successful, this is technology that many a weary traveler – military or civilian – will appreciate.
— Michael Peck
Image credit: Boeing