BROOKS CITY-BASE, TX -- Warfighters will never have the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but a specialized whey protein supplement under study at Brooks City-Base in Texas could enhance mental and physical performance. The double-blind Air Force Research Laboratory study was launched Feb. 3 as part of an operational readiness initiative and is being conducted in collaboration with the GNC Corp. of Pittsburgh.

The focus of the study is specialized whey protein. Historically, its non-modified form has been used to build muscle supporting increased physical conditioning. Scientists hope this research will eventually provide the Air Force with a non-pharmaceutical option -- one that enhances alertness and physical strength in warfighters exposed to sleep deprivation and workloads associated with stressful operational environments.

The study came about when Col. Breck Lebegue, a scientist here, observed soldiers and Marines using supplements in Kyrgyzstan in 2004.

"These guys are going to battle at 10,000 feet elevation while hauling 100 pound packs. That's hard work -- living and surviving in that kind of environment which is mentally and physically challenging," said Colonel Lebegue, the aerospace medicine chief of the aircrew performance and protection branch.

Colonel Lebegue wanted to find out if there was an operationally relevant need to scientifically verify the human performance-enhancing potential of such supplements.

He confirmed the special operations community's need for these supplements with Col. (Dr.) James Wright, 720th Special Tactical Group command surgeon at Hurlburt Field, FL, and a former U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine scientist in hyperbaric research here.

Last spring, Capt. (Dr.) Andy McQuade, one of the study's principle investigators and Human Fatigue Neurosciences Team chief, conducted an informal survey on supplement use among 720th Special Tactical Group personnel.

"I asked the 12 volunteers what supplements they used and where they got them. These guys knew more about supplements' effects from reading men's muscle magazines and less from the science (literature)," Captain McQuade said.

He also learned that the survey respondents felt stronger and believed the supplements worked.

"The only thing they had to measure supplements against were (conditioning) workouts in the gym," he said.

What makes AFRL's whey protein study different from past research on human performance, its principle investigators said, is it's not limited to cognition.

"We've had research to keep subjects awake, but not necessarily physically and mentally alert," Captain McQuade said.

AFRL researchers will be evaluating whey protein's effects on cognition and physical performance, as well as on body composition, memory and concentration involving specific tasks conducted after a 24-hour sleep deprived period.

The study builds upon earlier research conducted by Dr. David Housh, a University of Nebraska exercise physiologist, who collaborated with GNC on supplement testing.

"They tested leg strength using the gym's leg extension machine," Colonel Lebegue said. He said Dr. Housh's tests verified that these supplements helped build strength and muscle mass.

In AFRL's study, half of the volunteers will be given modified whey protein with the other half given a placebo. They will also be subjected to modified physical fitness and cognitive tests while alert and fatigued during an eight-week period.

AFRL investigators said they will be evaluating whey protein's effects on rebuilding and repairing over-exercised muscle. They emphasized that this specialized supplement is not a steroid, which is illegal and potentially harmful to health.