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Big thinking gives Vanderbilt team big win in U.S. Army xTech Program competition

Published: 03/09/2022
Dr. Katherine Aboud & Dr. Laurie Cutting

By the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Public Affairs Office

WASHINGTON – U.S. Army Soldiers train to operate efficiently and safely in a warzone, which requires a background in medical care to treat themselves and others when needed. Now a Vanderbilt University research team that recently won the Army’s xTech Brain Operant Learning Technology Competition will help by enhancing learning techniques for Soldiers’ training in emergency healthcare.

The team, led by Dr. Katherine Aboud and mentored by Dr. Laurie Cutting, developed technology that uses non-invasive brain stimulations to boost memory, with the goal of improving the recall of medical knowledge in stressful situations. For a Soldier in combat, this could assist in remembering key medical training while under pressure on the frontlines. Dr. Aboud and Dr. Cutting, as part of Vanderbilt’s Soldier-Inspired Innovation Incubator, are focusing on Soldiers that need to pass the Expert Field Medical Badge test, which focuses on specialized medical knowledge on the battlefield.

The test for this special skills badge is frequently failed by Soldiers, with a current pass rate of just 15%. The team hopes that their solution will help Soldiers pass the test and retain information to use in high-stress scenarios, and that it will ultimately be applied to other learning needs experienced by Soldiers.

“Our technology takes high-resolution brain images of an individual while they are learning new information,” said Dr. Aboud, research assistant professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. “We then use the individual’s brain profile of learning to identify the ideal targets for noninvasive brain stimulation to promote individualized learning. The noninvasive brain stimulation technique is a safe and easy stimulation approach that involves electrodes just outside the scalp.”

Ultimately, the technology promotes communication between various areas of the brain, targeting those that are responsible for information retention. To prove their concept, the researchers tested their concept on a group of volunteers who then took the Expert Field Medical Badge test, and a large portion of participants showed improvement in learning retention. The validity of their research and testing earned Dr. Aboud and Dr. Cutting the top prize in the xTechBOLT Competition, which included over $530,000 to continue scaling up the real-world application to meet current Army needs.

xTechSearch is a competition sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology that encourages small businesses to uncover novel dual-use science and technology solutions to tackle the Army’s most critical modernization challenges. Finalists receive awards that help fund research and development efforts.

Dr. Aboud noted that the benefit of xTech reaches beyond the prize money, and she believes the networking and collaborations amongst technology innovators with similar goals will help to solve Army challenges on a large scale.

“It’s a competition, but there are a lot of problems to solve,” she said. “The competition was a great opportunity to meet each other and think about collaborations. That was really supported by xTech. There’s a sense of this great, big thinking.”

Coming up next, Dr. Aboud and Dr. Cutting plan to further test their solution on Soldiers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and will continue to focus on the Expert Field Medical Badge test.

“Being a part of this incubator has connected me to the real-world needs in the Army,” said Dr. Aboud.

“It’s been very personally rewarding, and it’s also enhanced the project scope to put pressure on how we can make a difference with our science, and how we can improve day-to-day training experiences.”

For more information on Vanderbilt University and the Soldier-Inspired Innovation Incubator, visit the Vanderbilt website at

Dr. Katherine Aboud & Dr. Laurie Cutting

Big thinking gives Vanderbilt team big win in U.S. Army xTech Program competition

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