A fascinating study conducted by the Japanese National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) and the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNet) examined the brain activity in the great Brazilian soccer player Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior. In this study, Neymar was asked to turn his right ankle, a common movement in a soccer game, while his brain was imaged using fMRI. The brain activity Neymar exhibited was compared to the activity observed in other professional soccer players, professional swimmers and one amateur soccer player. The researchers found the professional soccer players all exhibited less brain activity while turning their ankles compared to swimmers and the amateur player. Interestingly, Neymar showed the least amount of activity in the motor area suggesting a conservation of neural resources. This kind of phenomenon has also been observed in pianists; it suggests cerebral activity related to movement is finely-tuned in the brains of professionals.
(Source: Naito & Hirose. 2014. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.)
It should be noted this study only measured the brain activity that arose from restricted movements during the fMRI; it is possible brain activity would differ during a real soccer match. Nonetheless, it can be inferred that professional athletes likely have different brain connectivity and activation patterns compared to amateurs.
In light of this, professional athletes have begun using neurotechnology to enhance their brains and athletic performance.
Halo Neuroscience is one of the companies at the forefront of sports enhancement through brain stimulation. They have developed a unique headset which helps to increase the effectiveness of training by enhancing neuroplasticity. The headset applies transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the motor cortex for 20 minutes leaving neurons in a “primed for plasticity” state during training. Academic studies have shown tDCS increases dendritic spine density and motor function in rats following ischemia. Furthermore, in healthy volunteers tDCS has been associated with increased neuroplasticity.
(Image credit: halo neuroscience)
Beyond academia, the San Francisco Giants recently tested the effectiveness of the Halo headset and found athletes who wore the Halo headset as part of their training regime showed improved performance compared to players who did not. Specifically, they noted differences in batting swing speed and running. The results were so promising the entire team has adopted the technology as part of their regular training routine. In addition to the support from the San Francisco Giants, Halo neuroscience has received investments totalling more than 10 million dollars; among these investors is the renowned VC, Andreessen Horowitz.
A company founded by two scientists at Columbia University has developed a tool called deCervo to train baseball players to make more accurate judgements when playing. The time between when the baseball is thrown and when it reaches the player is approximately 0.5 seconds. In that time, the player must decide what sort of pitch was thrown, and whether to swing or not. Through training with deCervo, players can improve their decision-making skills at the plate.
During deCervo training, subjects must decide when to swing while observing ball trajectories on a screen. The decision-making process is measured through EEG and the subjects register their decision by clicking a key. The lag time between when the decision is made (as observed through EEG) and when the subject clicks the key is determined. Following additional calculations, the player’s batting habits can be inferred. For example, a player may be skilled at recognizing strikes but could struggle to recognize when a ball will land outside the strike zone. The program also tests capabilities with different pitching styles including fastballs, curveballs and sliders. Unsurprisingly, there is a tradeoff between accuracy and decision speed. At times this could mean a player makes a correct judgement but still misses the ball due to the slowness of the decision-making process. By using this program, players can work to improve these lag times.
(Image credit: deCervo)
Initially, deCervo was developed as an evaluation tool for scouting players with accurate decision-making skills; more recently, the program has been expanded to be used as a training tool. To meet the current demand from professional teams, deCervo is developing VR versions of the program as well as a smartphone app. Future enhancements could involve players mimicking batting motions and receiving feedback on their response times and technique.
Another exciting innovation in the sports industry is NeuroTracker, a tool used to assess and improve cognitive abilities. NeuroTracker is unique in that the system continuously improves by incorporating over 20 years worth of research. The aim of NeuroTracker is to reinforce working memory, selective attention, continuous attention as well as executive function. Participants are presented with a screen displaying 8 yellow balls; subsequently, 4 balls turn red momentarily and then back to yellow. The balls are shuffled around the screen and participants must determine which of the balls had previously been red. To increase the difficulty, participants can be asked to track the balls while simultaneously performing basic movements associated with their sport. Consistent training with NeuroTracker helps to improve an athlete’s ability to keep track of events in their surroundings and helps players make accurate and rapid decisions.
(Image credit: NeuroTracker)
Currently, NeuroTracker is being used by Manchester United, the Atlanta Falcons, the Vancouver Canucks and the U-20 USA Men’s National Soccer Team. Beyond the sports arenas, NeuroTracker has also been shown to be an effective tool for combating cognitive deficits associated with illnesses such as attention-deficit disorder (ADD), ADHD and Parkinson’s disease.
IntelliGym technology originates from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to train air force pilots. The program has since been modified into a tool to improve cognitive function for athletes such as hockey, baseball and soccer players. IntelliGym has a program for each sport as different athletes require different cognitive abilities. For example, during a hockey game players must be aware of the positions of their teammates, opposing players and the puck. To help participants memorize player positions, the hockey training module focuses on improving working memory and short-term memory skills.
(Image credit: IntelliGym)
In the hockey module, a game appears on the screen where the user can see their teammates, opponents and the puck without difficulty. However, over the course of the module the visibility is reduced and participants are forced to remember the location of players and the puck. The IntelliGym tool allows players to practise “no-look” passes and helps to train the working memory. IntelliGym training is conducted on a computer making it easy to administer compared to in-person training on the ice. As a testament to its effectiveness, the US Hockey National Team Development Program (NTDP) incorporated the IntelliGym system into the training regiment for the U18 team and found the winning ratio increased from 29% to 70%.
(Image credit: Intelligym)
The conversation surrounding concussions has taken the sports industry by storm as scientists and the media begin to shed light on the prevalence of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in contact sports such as football and hockey. At the Academy of Neurology’s 68th Annual Meeting, research conducted at Florida State University was presented which showed 17 out of 40 (43%) retired NFL players exhibited symptoms of TBI based on brain scans and evaluation through memory tasks. More recently, huge headlines were garnered when a paper, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed signs of CTE in brains from football players of all skill levels. Most strikingly, neuropathology associated with CTE was found in 99% (110 out of 111) of NFL player brains examined. Therefore, there is great interest in tools and devices which can help with early detection of concussions for the protection of both athletes and team management.
To address this concern, Dr. Jamshid Ghajar at the Stanford University Concussion and Brain Performance Center has developed SyncThink, and the program EYE-SYNC which uses VR with eye tracking functions to accurately diagnose concussions. Under healthy conditions, we can track moving objects with our eyes. This involves the coordination of visual information from the eyes, the prediction of subsequent movements, and a muscle reaction based on this prediction. Concussions, especially those causing frontal lobe dysfunction, hinder a patient’s ability to perform this coordinated task. SyncThink exploits this phenomenon as a method of diagnosis. The EYE-SYNC program involves a VR activity where subjects must track a moving dot; patients with deteriorating brain function exhibit poorer performance. A concussion diagnosis can be obtained within 60 seconds making EYE-SYNC a quick and effective tool.
The diagnostic reliability of visual tracking performance was compared to results obtained from diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and researchers showed a correlation coefficient of 0.5. While not a perfect overlap, these results indicate EYE-SYNC could be a useful preliminary diagnostic tool, which can later be supplemented by other measures.
Currently, the EYE-SYNC device is part of Stanford University’s standard concussion management protocol and is used in all athlete cases involving a suspected concussion. In fact, due to the speed and ease with which a diagnosis can be made, the device is on site for all football games played by the Stanford team.
While physical toughness has always been seen as an obvious requirement for exceptional athletic performance, the importance of cognitive intelligence had been previously overlooked. More recently, coaches and athletes understand heightened cognitive skills can also elevate performance. Perhaps instead of drugs and doping, future athletes will gain a competitive edge by training their brains just as vigorously as their bodies. With the help of technology we may be entering a new era of sport and athleticism. Let the games begin!
Maruta J, Lee SW, Jacobs EF & Ghajar J. 2010. A unified science of concussion. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1208:58–66.