NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Dec. 10, 2020) – Dr. Kevin O'Brien, a Research Psychologist in the Warfighter Performance Group (WPG) at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory (USAARL), was awarded the first “AMSUS Innovator Award” at the Virtual 129th AMSUS Annual Meeting held Dec. 6-10.
The award was newly created in 2020 to recognize significant innovation in the healthcare field by AMSUS, The Society of Federal Health Professionals, which is a non-profit educational and professional development association serving the DOD, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, federal health professionals and their families.
O’Brien designed a device to use at a display booth for the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory (USAARL), Warfighter Performance Group (WPG), which was used during conferences to simulate the impact of nutritional supplementation on visual performance. He created an instrument which could perform demonstrations and collect performance data for acuity, contrast sensitivity, subjective discomfort, and a target detection task.
According to O’Brien, there is a large body of civilian literature that shows that macular pigmentation, or deposit of dietary pigments in the eyes, improves visual function, minimizes visual discomfort, and helps delineate macular degeneration, and generally improves retinal health. But, the military didn’t have a survey of both the amount of macular pigment that was present in Soldiers, and in particular Army aviators.
He compared Soldiers, Aviators, and reasonably matched group of civilians and found that the amount of macular pigment in Soldiers was generally higher than the base population.
“We were able to tie the macular pigment data to the visual performance data with some new equipment that I built and programmed. That is the first proper sample in military literature of any large group of Soldiers,” said O’Brien.
For the project he performed all of the optical calculations, designed all the circuit boards, soldered every component, wrote all of the firmware and software, and automated the data analysis.
“I feel very fortunate to be the one to receive this award but I look back on everything that went into this and I couldn’t have done a tenth of this without the team I work with, the command we have at USAARL, and the support of everyone who has helped me do all of this so far,” said O’Brien. “To me it really is a way to reflect on everything I have been able to do since I got to USAARL and everybody who has made that possible.”
O’Brien is a Georgia native and three-time graduate of the University of Georgia (UGA) Athens, where he completed a Bachelor’s of Science, a Masters, and a Doctorate in Psychology.
During his time as an undergraduate, O’Brien served in the Vision Sciences Laboratory assisting with vision research which led to an academic focus on vision. As a master’s student, he began developing electronic hardware and software for performing vision experiments. His master’s thesis project results were used to improve a commercially available device.
O’Brien planned to focus on more traditional optics experiments but that there are parts of testing that was tedious and prone to errors so he wanted to automate those parts.
“So I took what tiny snippets of information I had about electronics and tried to figure out how to flip a lever up and down, or record right and left responses when a subject is looking at something tilted, or that type of thing. And then I just started building from there,” said O’Brien.
He began with an electro-mechanical focus but when he started to control light sources directly he found he could do more in the temporal vision domain where there is a need to change stimuli quickly and reliably. LED lighting required basic coding skills and although he was self-taught it led him to designing labe equipment.
“It became advantageous to look at automating the analysis process so it was less error prone and less tedious. Once that pipeline is worked out, you can run more subjects and you can look at future experiments and see what kind equipment do I need, and if it doesn’t exist, then what can I build,” said O’Brien.
As a doctoral student, O’Brien created laboratory instruments for his own research as well as for several professors, other doctoral students, and several pharmaceutical companies. The equipment Dr. O’Brien developed during this time has been used to assess visual performance in infants, college athletes, and dementia patients.
”I think almost everyone starts with the equipment they have access to or figures out commercially available equipment they need to buy. It started about the cost, but now a lot of the stuff I end up building at USAARL its more of a matter of what we actually need doesn’t exist,” said O’Brien.
Since becoming a Department of Army Civilian employee, he also developed an algorithm for processing electrocardiogram data which was used to analyze over 2,400 hours of recordings taken from wearable devices. Initially, the review of the data was requiring about 3 hours per subject, per day and the team was unable to get feedback quickly which was a major strain on the project.