I’m a science junkie.
For the past few months, my interest has been on neuroscience in particular, partly due to the fact that exercise, fatigue, and performance is increasingly being seen as an issue that needs to be looked at from a neuroscience perspective.
A few months ago I was reading a book on the brain and was watching the excellent Morgan Freeman show Through the wormhole. In this particular episode, they were exploring the idea of our subconscious and neurosciences explanations and contribution to it.
What caught my interest was when they showed someone using Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). I’ve vaguely known about it through various scientific publications, but, in this case, they were using it to improve performance on a cognitive task. The researchers were using it to essentially speed up the learning process of identifying enemy targets.
What does identification of missile targets have to do with exercise and performance?
It’s the fact that certain areas of the brain can be targeted. When I first saw this I couldn’t help but think of the possibility of targeting certain brain regions. If you subscribe to some form of the Central governor theory of exercise, then you know that ultimately the brain regulates performance. If true, then it would make sense that targeting certain areas might be able to either alter pain perception, allowable motor unit recruitment, or any number of other items that might lead to improved performance.
At around the same time, in the popular science world, more work was being done on the insular cortex. If you follow me on twitter, you might have seen this article tweeted before, in which it describes the research on the insula:
“The insula does all this by anticipating an athlete’s future feelings, according to a new theory. Researchers at the OptiBrain Center, a consortium based at the University of California, San Diego, and the Naval Health Research Center, suggest that an athlete possesses a hyper-attuned insula that can generate strikingly accurate predictions ofhow the body will feel in the next moment. That model of the body’s future condition instructs other brain areas to initiate actions that are more tailored to coming demands than those of also-rans and couch potatoes.”
Tieing this back together, what happens if TMS is used to accelerate the “learning” of the insula region? Do we get improved performance?
Well, Alex Hutchinson over at sweatscience, found the study that essentially did just that.
In the study they used another method of stimulation Transcranial current stimulation (TCS) to stimulate the temporal cortex and the left insula cortex. What happened?
Cyclists had a 4% improvement in performance.
Which leads me to the final journal article I’ll cite. In a yet to be published article in Sports Medicine, Nick Davis wrote a piece entitled “Neurodoping: Brain Stimulation as a Performance Enhancing Measure” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23504390)
In the piece, Davis explores the idea of Doping through the above mechanisms. Answering the question of what Brain stimulation can do, Davis remarks:
“In the “acute” phase following stimulation, participants have demonstrated enhanced motor skills including: improved time-to-fatigue , response time , and tremor suppression . The effect of tDCS is maximal shortly after the end of stimulation and declines over roughly a 20- to 60-min period, depending on the stimulation parameters . The effects of theta-burst TMS last for a similar length of time, but with the peak of effect some 5 min after the end of stimulation. So, it
is possible to envision a time when an athlete might take a “hit” of stimulation before shooting a pistol or setting off on a ski slalom.
A second use of neurodoping might be in skill acquisition. Skills learned in the context of anodal tDCS are acquired more rapidly , and reproduced more accurately , than those learned without. Sports performance at the highest levels require good technique and good timing. These are skills learned during
training, so enhancing the efficiency of learning during the training phase will be of greater benefit at competition time. I suggest that an athlete could use these techniques to make training more efficient and thereby gain an advantage.
The distinction between acute benefits and long term skill acquisition is interesting. It seems likely that acute use to improve performance could be well regulated. If the effects generally only last for 20-30min, then it seems like it would be easy to manage it at major competitions. The troubling part, and maybe more so for sports involving higher skill acquisition, is the long term effects of using it.
Additionally, Davis raises the point that this research has been done on novices. It’s possible that elite performers are closer to their max in terms of skill acquisition and may have little to gain.
The fact is that this science is still in its infancy. While research has shown positive effects with various stimulation types on the treatment of depression and addiction, there is a lot to learn. The long term effects aren’t known.
Davis goes on to take a reasoned approach to the doping question and the future of brain stimulation in sport, which is worth a read. Where I disagree with Davis though is his belief that using “neuroenhancement” during training isn’t unethical.
There is no difference between neurodoping and taking EPO or testosterone in my opinion. It’s taking the body artificially, where it can not go. But wait, you might say, you’re just unlocking your bodies own natural power? I’d argue what you are doing is tricking or subverting the bodies natural regulatory mechanisms.
If we truly believe that fatigue is, to borrow a phrase from a Tim Noakes paper, “a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis,” then neurodoping has to be considered unethical and be banned.
In looking at the above chart, it is clear how large a role the brain plays in performance. There is no difference to me in stimulating an area of the brain that regulates affect, emotional arousal, motor control, or any other process, than trying to artificially stimulate Red blood cell production through injecting EPO.
While, at present it is not feasible to use neurodoping, and it’s not clear whether performance is improved or what long term effects may be, my hope is that USADA, WADA, and whoever else is involved starts looking into this issue and designs a plan of attack for combating it.