Mental workload during n-back task-quantified in the prefrontal cortex using fNIRS


When interacting with technical systems, users experience mental workload. Particularly in multitasking scenarios (e.g., interacting with the car navigation system while driving) it is desired to not distract the users from their primary task. For such purposes, human-machine interfaces (HCIs) are desirable which continuously monitor the users' workload and dynamically adapt the behavior of the interface to the measured workload. While memory tasks have been shown to elicit hemodynamic responses in the brain when averaging over multiple trials, a robust single trial classification is a crucial prerequisite for the purpose of dynamically adapting HCIs to the workload of its user. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays an important role in the processing of memory and the associated workload. In this study of 10 subjects, we used functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), a non-invasive imaging modality, to sample workload activity in the PFC. The results show up to 78% accuracy for single-trial discrimination of three levels of workload from each other. We use an n-back task (n ∈ 1, 2, 3) to induce different levels of workload, forcing subjects to continuously remember the last one, two, or three of rapidly changing items. Our experimental results show that measuring hemodynamic responses in the PFC with fNIRS, can be used to robustly quantify and classify mental workload. Single trial analysis is still a young field that suffers from a general lack of standards. To increase comparability of fNIRS methods and results, the data corpus for this study is made available online. © 2014 Herff, Heger, Fortmann, Hennrich, Putze and Schultz.

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience