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Higher, faster, better – using “brain stimulation” to boost Olympic athletes’ performance

Why have sports world records been broken several times over recent decades? Did athletes really get faster and what are they doing to improve? Records in classical disciplines like sprinting, marathon or freestyle swimming, displayed strong increases from the 40ies to the 70ies and are still rising until now. A major part of this improvement of athletes’ performance can be attributed to better equipment, technological progress and advances in sports science: Elastic floor coverings, better running shoes and knowledge of muscle physiology enabled athletes to train more efficient and run faster. Beyond that, today’s athletes follow specific diets, get mental coaching and have physiotherapists to function perfectly. However, they are always hunting for novel ways to pimp their skills. Training the brain with electric stimulation recently showed up as potential – still legal – approach to improve performance and has been used by several athletes during their preparation for the current Olympic Games 2016 in Rio, Brazil.

Intensifying muscle-brain-communication by electric stimulation

The “brain-doping” method, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is a non-invasive technique to stimulate specific parts of the brain. tDCS has its roots in neurosciences and was originally developed to treat neuronal disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

The principle of tDCS is easy: Two electrodes are placed on the head, delivering a low intensity current to the outer brain areas. Depending on the polarity of the attached electrodes, neuronal activity can be pushed into two directions: Anodal tDCS enhances, while cathodal tDCS reduces the activity of neurons.

The U.S. based company Halo Neurosciences designed a tDCS device specifically for the training of athletes. The Halo Sport is a wireless headphone applying tDCS to the motor cortex. This brain region regulates execution of movement, control of movement and coordination – motoric skills crucial for athletes’ performance. In addition, Halo Sport delivers the anodal type of tDCS – leading to a higher excitability of the neurons in the motor cortex and hence a more intense communication between this brain area and the muscle. The manufacturer recommends wearing the Halo Sport for 20 min during the warm-up phase of the training, so that neurons are stimulated and more responsive during the training session.


Pushing the limits of sports performance

Different studies performed by Halo Neurosciences themselves as well as independent investigators provide first evidence that stimulating (anodal) tDCS may boost exercise performance. Halo Neuroscience, in cooperation with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA), tested the effect of Halo Sport in a double-blind study with Olympic ski jumpers. Ski jumpers who have trained with Halo Sport for 4 weeks developed greater power and coordination compared to ski jumpers not receiving the brain stimulation: Propulsion force was increased by 13 % and jump smoothness by 11 %.

Another study evaluating Halo Sport in elite athletes found that jumping force was increased after training with Halo Sport. Recently published independent studies indicate that neuron-stimulating tDCS may delay fatigue during cycling. A study performed in untrained subjects showed that time to exhaustion was increased in average by 2 minutes in the group receiving the brain stimulation. Even more relevant for Olympic athletes, this delay of exhaustion was also described in a study with physically active people. Summing up the key findings of these first studies, stimulating (anodal) tDCS potentially enhances the acquirement of coordination skills, increases force and prolongues endurance.

The ethics of sports – play true

Where to draw the line between doping and fair play? The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) defined three criteria for including a substance or a method on the Prohibited List:

The substance or method …

  1. … has the potential to enhance or enhances sports performance
  2. … represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete
  3. … violates the spirit of sport when used

When WADA determines that any two of the three criteria are fulfilled, the substance or method will be banned. Up to now, the “brain-doping” method is not yet on the List, athletes have free access, and its use cannot be traced in lab tests. Although there’s a need for more scientific evidence, brain stimulation with tDCS might really work and its potential has been shown in first studies. Taking the WADA criteria for prohibition into account, athletes and sports organizations must scrutinize if training with tDCS is fair play. Keep in mind that several athletes participating at the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio already prepared with Halo Sport!

Dr. Manuela Fleckenstein-Elsen
Medical Advising at antwerpes ag

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Veröffentlicht: 19. August 2016 // antwerpes