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Can brain stimulation boost athletic performance?


To obtain more from the body, some hope to be able to act one day on the brain to disconnect the protective mechanisms.

In an attempt to gain a few watts or minutes, some athletes and coaches are now turning to neuroscience. Recently, the manager of a cycling team spoke of his interest in neuromodulation, the main advantage of which would be to prevent the brain from “letting go”. Does he really apply such a method? Hard to know.

What is known, however, is that the system mentioned is a non-invasive electrical stimulation device  which allows – with the help of two electrodes placed on the scalp – to modify the excitability of the regions brain. Applied for a few minutes, such stimulation would promote the plasticity of neural networks. In therapy, levels of evidence are beginning to be acceptable for treating fibromyalgia, depression and some addictions. But what are these neuro modulation systems doing in sports?

The brain, the only master on board

Having a “good heart” and “good muscles” is essential in endurance sports. Nevertheless, the brain remains “master on board” because it delivers the motor commands and analyzes the emotions and motivation of the individual. Thus, after being informed of a strong solicitation of the cardiorespiratory and muscular systems, this one would reduce the orders sent to the muscles to prevent the risks of overwork – or worse – of lesions. Wise decision.

Could brain stimulation change what appears to be a protective mechanism for these systems? Beyond the questions of health that such a perspective would represent, on which brain regions should this stimulation be applied? Some scientific studies seem to provide elements of response: those that stimulate the motor regions to reduce neuro muscular fatigability and those that are interested in a region of the interoceptive cortex – the insula – to modify the perception of the effort.

It did not take long for innovative products inspired by these stimulation systems to appear on the market. And to make them more practical, an American company has incorporated the two electrodes into the amount of a music headset. The idea would have been good if the studies mentioned above had not obtained effects on the muscular force with an electrode on the head and the other positioned on the shoulder. Because here it is, the problem is that the final product does not always respect the conditions that allowed to obtain these performance improvements.

Moreover, even in the laboratory, the precision of the tool questions. It is very difficult to know for example what part of the insula (6 to 7 cm long) is precisely targeted. It is known that the central portion would treat sensations from the muscles and that the anterior portion would be involved in the treatment of a broad spectrum of sensations (cold, heat, heart beat), as well as in the perception of time and the analysis of emotions.

Finally, the instructions for use remain too general. However, a study published reported that cortical reorganization induced is different according to the time of day, sex and age of individuals and that it is also sensitive to certain pharmacological agents or other genetic factors involved in the mechanisms of synaptic plasticity.

Doping without trace, but not without risk

On these elements, it appears that the current state of knowledge is clearly insufficient to predict the benefits of brain stimulation on sports performance … It is by individualizing this method to people whose effects would be most visible that we could learn to better control it. But it takes time to study and obviously time we do not have …

Neuro modulation leaves a prior no trace. This will make the work of anti-doping actors difficult the day they take over the issue of brain doping. No trace does not mean no risk: we do not know the impact on health of prolonged use.

To end this column on a more optimistic note, here is another rather original solution:According to researchers showed that people who, during an exercise, visualized subliminal images of smiling faces diminished their perception of exhaustion and increased their time. 12% effort. So, smile! You are boosted!

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