Non-invasive brain scans could one day be used to assess workers’ competence on the job.
In a new study, researchers have pinpointed key differences in the brain activity of skilled surgeons compared to novices – enough that they were able to distinguish between the two based on the scans.
The findings could pave the way for more accurate methods of measuring performance among surgeons and other highly skilled professionals.
‘Measuring motor skill proficiency is critical for the certification of highly skilled individuals in numerous fields,’ the researchers explain in a new study published to the journal Science Advances.
‘However, conventional measures use subjective metrics that often cannot distinguish between expertise levels.’
According to the researchers, though, the new method outperforms the standard ways of measuring proficiency in Fundamentals of Laparoscopic Surgery (FLS), which is required for certification by the American Board of Surgery.
In the study, researchers compared surgical motor skill levels in expert and novice surgeons using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).
The team monitored the brain activity of roughly 30 surgeons and trainees during pattern-cutting tasks, according to the Wall Street Journal.
These tasks are part of the professional certification tests.
To monitor their brain activity, researchers fitted each participant with a cap embedded with an array of tiny lasers.
Instead of directly measuring brain activity, this method detects fluctuations in the levels of oxygenated blood flowing to the brain, which signals activity in particular areas, according to WSJ.
The team also developed a machine-learning system to analyze the scans.
According to the researchers, novice surgeons experienced increased activity in different areas of the brain than seen in the skilled surgeons.
For novices and unskilled medical students, activity spiked in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning complex behaviour.
Activity in the primary motor cortex, however – an area involved in motor function – decreased, along with activity in supplemental motor area, which relates to the control of movement.
In skilled surgeons, on the other hand, activity in the motor cortex spiked.
The researchers say this non-invasive technique could help to solve issues of subjectivity and inconsistencies in FLS score interpretations.
And, it could even help to predict who might turn out to be particularly skilled in the future, for surgeons and even in other professions.
According to the researchers, the approach ‘may be expanded to robustly identify and predict surgical candidates that may achieve faster learning curves for learning complex surgical skills, and by extension, achieve surgical skill mastery with a significantly faster rate than other surgical trainees.
‘Furthermore, these methodologies can be easily applied to other fields, including rehabilitation, brain computer interfaces, robotics, stroke, and rehabilitation therapy.’