Study evaluated firefighters' brain reactions in critical fire situations

Research concluded that viewing images involving decisions to rescue people can “have great importance for training decision-making in risk situations”

An investigation by the University of Coimbra (UC), released today, analyzed the brain response of firefighters when faced with fire rescue actions and scientists believe that the study could be important for improving decisions in risk situations.

The work, led by researcher Isabel Duarte and Miguel Castelo-Branco, scientific coordinator of the Center for Biomedical Imaging and Translational Research at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences Applied to Health (CIBIT/ICNAS), involved carrying out virtual rescue games, by of 47 firefighters from various corporations in the Coimbra district.

The research team concluded that viewing images involving decisions to rescue people from fires can “have great importance in improving and training decision-making in risk situations”, said the UC, in a statement sent to the Lusa agency.

“By analyzing how the brain resolves dilemmas involving decisions that can save lives, it was possible to study the role of experience and the use of 'coping' strategies [a set of cognitive and behavioral strategies used by people to face stressful situations, in conditions of high emotional overload for the individual] by firefighters”, explained neuroscientist Miguel Castelo-Branco, quoted in the note.

The professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Coimbra (FMUC) added that the investigation allowed us to understand that decision-making dilemmas led to the activation of neural networks involved in the management of emotional reward and other networks related to ethical and deontological dilemmas.

The scientific team, which also included the Center for Prevention and Treatment of Psychological Trauma of the Integrated Psychiatric Responsibility Center of the Coimbra Local Health Unit, was able to verify that “the neural activity related to the decision to rescue people decreased by certain brain regions, the greater the capacity to use 'coping' strategies, which suggests compensatory learning acquired through practice”, stressed the neuroscientist.

The firefighters participating in the study “visualized realistic scenarios involving lives at risk for themselves and potential victims, having to make a rescue decision”, said Miguel Castelo Branco.

The exercise simulated firefighting with life-threatening situations, such as houses burning with people at risk inside, a situation in which the prior training and specialization of firefighters play an important role, with the participants' brains being studied through functional magnetic resonance imaging.

“We also discovered that brain activity in regions related to memory and decision-making – such as the hippocampus and insula – increased proportionally as the risk increased”, illustrated Miguel Castelo-Branco.

“It was possible to identify brain areas whose activity was directly related to calculating the probability of adverse events, such as falling from a burning house or loss of life,” noted the researcher.

At the same time, people who do not have the role of firefighter, when subjected to the same decision tasks, presented different brain results, leading scientists to conclude that the way the brain controls the decision depends on experience and training.