Sports May Drive Brain Stimulation to the Masses

OK – yes this is a long post – but if you are an elite athlete, coach, or a just interested in sports, stay tuned….

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(The $99 plus shipping Go Flow Pro – with it’s included headband allows easy and secure electrode placement. So what does this have to do with sports?)

Introduction

The potential benefits of tDCS* and other brain stimulation technologies have been receiving online and media coverage for a few years now. One would have thought the great things tDCS can do for depression, chronic pain, learning, memory, athletic ability, etc. would be plenty to make it top news everywhere. But alas that is not the case. The Malcolm Gladwell “Tipping Point” has not been reached! tDCS is new, scary (electricity through the brain), and still needs more research and more concrete treatment procedures to tip – but it is rapidly getting there.

The “tipping point” for tDCS and brain stimulation may come via – of all places – elite athletics.

Sports Goes for Brain Stimulation

In recent months the professional and collegiate sports world has started to adopt tDCS (and other brain stimulation technologies) in rather spectacular fashion. One has only to watch the video(s) at haloneuro.com, youtube.com, or read recent articles in sports publications, including Sports Illustrated, to be awed by the results being claimed.

Now that certain elite athletes and their coaches have reported very interesting performance gains every competitive athlete is going to get curious about getting the same edge as word continues to spread. How do I know this? Look at all the demand for – and ruined careers caused by performance enhancing drugs in athletics! If an elite athlete can improve their performance, legally, by 3% or more by using a 9 volt battery don’t you think they will want to try it? What about coaches, fans, and investors – will they encourage athletes to try tDCS? In the years just ahead, you and I will witness a number of athletes (pro and amateur – and their teams) who will compete and succeed  – perhaps setting new records in their chosen sport – by way of brain stimulation.

No you say? If a pro athlete or team is willing to spend millions of dollars on tiny enhancements to shoes or swimsuits just to get a tenth of a second gain, how hard will it be for them to spend $99 or $599 for a brain stimulation device that can potentially bring about a comparatively large performance improvement? They will do it in a heartbeat.

Oh – BTW, you can guess that all of the not-so-elite weekend hacks will want to try brain stimulation too.  Think of all the sports that could be affected: golf, baseball, football, basketball, hockey, track and field, etc. Athletes by the millions! Brain stimulation can potentially help many of them!

Brain stim device manufactures ALERT: a tidal wave of demand is about to come your way! We need good products with good research behind them – and well written end-user guides!

Regulating Performance Enhancing Brain Stimulation

Sports oversight organizations that want to regulate this new form of performance enhancement will find it difficult to impossible. The fact that a small amount of current has passed through the brain of athletes will be impossible to detect – body chemistry will be no different than that of other athletes who have not engaged in electrical brain stimulation.

I’m curious if this summer’s Olympic games will include any athletes using brain stimulation to enhance performance? I don’t – know but would not be surprised. If you see any reports of such, please pass them along to me.

Brain Stimulation for Athletes – A Beginners Guide

While tDCS has been around for many years, it has been used little in the world of sports. There are a few vendors who have created related products (including foc.us, thync.com, and haloneuro.com) But it is the pioneering work by Halo Neuroscience that seems to have really captured the imagination and curiosity of the elites. Halo sells a very interesting Bluetooth headset that includes built-in electrodes positioned to allow stimulation of the motor cortex.


(Halo Neuroscience Bluetooth headset showing their unique tDCS electrodes.)


(Motor cortex diagram. From wikipedia.org.)

There are literally dozens of completed studies mentioned on pubmed.gov that show how a tiny electric current can enhance or attenuate motor cortex activity and related muscle activation.  Until recently, the tDCS equipment required was large, fragile, and expensive.  But Halo, Thync, foc.us, and others have changed that.

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(The 10-20 EEG System diagram. From wikipedia.org)

Exactly where to place electrodes, how much current to use, and for how long, for athletic enhancement is an area still open to much research. Halo Neuroscience, in one of their published studies, mentions placing the tDCS anode (plus) over C4 and the cathode over C3, and stimulating using 1.4 mA for 25 minutes. Other studies (on pubmed.gov for example) mention similar electrode locations or placing the anode at Cz and the cathode on the shoulder with current levels up to 2 mA and times between 20 and 30 minutes.

While the Halo headset is an innovative tool for bringing about athletic improvement, you can use any tDCS device to experiment with simulating the motor cortex. But lets be clear – it is experimenting. There is no FDA or other regulating body I’m aware of that watches over this emerging area of technology.  If you try it, you are truly on the leading edge. Proceed with much caution. Do your homework!

Using a tDCS Device for Motor Cortex Stimulation

Here are a couple of examples of using a commercially available tDCS device to stimulate the motor cortex and thus increase neuroplasticity. Done correctly and with enough repetition an athlete may see improvement in the their particular areas of concentration.

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(foc.us produces the very tiny Go Flow Pro tDCS device that snaps on the top of a 9 volt battery.  I think it is ideal for experimenting with athletic enhancement. I added my own arm-band to hold the tDCS device and battery while in use. It will easily fit in a pocket, too.)

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(Over the years all kinds of things have been used to hold electrodes in place – including head-bands, sticky gel, baseball caps, and yes – headphones! Here is an example of headphones with Caputron 2×2 electrodes attached. I’ve found that “Shoe Goo” glue can be used to stick just about anything to anything – and it works well for this application.)

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(I like the Caputron 2x2s because they are very flexible and conform to the head very well. I show them connected to a Go Flow Pro, but you can use any tDCS device with them – including the BrainStimulator.)


(The BrainStimulator Travel Model is another small tDCS device that seems appropriate for athletic activity. I’ve previously reviewed this device on my blog.)

tDCS Session Steps

Here are the simple steps I follow when using tDCS for athletic improvement.  I’ll provide additional detail in a future post as more research data comes in and in response to your questions.

  1. Make sure you are fully informed regarding what tDCS is and what risks are involved. If you have any unusual medical issues, consult with your doctor. See the list of web links below as a starting point of additional information and cautions.
  2. Make sure you have your tDCS device, battery, electrodes, headphones, straps, etc. ready to go. If you will be using a Halo headset, follow their directions as appropriate.
  3. Wet your electrodes (not to the point of dripping) with saline or tap water as desired. Place the anode (red or plus lead) at C4 and the cathode at C3 per the diagram above.
  4. Set your tDCS device for 1 to 1.5 mA and 20 to 25 minutes for the  session time.
  5. Start your tDCS session.

Sports Training and Activity

1. If your motions during your sport will not jar your electrodes you can begin your training as soon as your tDCS session begins. Electrode movement during a tDCS session could cause uncomfortable electrical surges and sags – and cause your tDCS session to terminate.  Your electrodes must remain stable and in contact with your scalp throughout your tDCS session. No you can’t swim during a tDCS session.

2. If your sport would likely jar or jostle your electrodes (or involves water), complete your tDCS session just before you begin training or activity. Relax and use the time to study information about your sport, competitors, etc.

3. For either case above, you may remove your tDCS electrodes as soon as your session completes. It’s important to know that enhanced neuroplasticity (brain stimulation) will go on for an hour or two after your tDCS session is complete. So train correctly during this time – use a coach that knows what they are doing – or at least be aware of yourself and that you are executing your activity in a correct and enhancing way.

4. With tDCS, repetition is important. You may not notice any dramatic changes right away – during your first training session. Perhaps by the 5th training session a positive change may become apparent.

5. If you experience any of the following, stop using tDCS and contact someone familiar with brain stimulation who can suggest changes in electrode placement  or other modifications to your program… burning or excessive skin irritation at the electrode site, dizziness, light flashes in your eyes (called phosphenes), any feeling or discomfort that seems unusual for the kind of training you are doing.

6. Some articles about tDCS suggest that you do no more than two sessions in a day, separated by at least two hours.  Further, some have reported difficulty sleeping if brain stimulation occurs after about 5:00PM.

Reasons tDCS Fails

Lets be honest, no treatment works for everyone. Even aspirin works better for some than others. tDCS is no different. It is my observation that those who can keep up the repitition required by tDCS (self motivated – or are motivated by a coach) do the best. If you can’t be disiplined enough to use tDCS in a regular and repeated way, then you will fail to achieve any gains with it.

Wrapping It Up

tDCS offeres at least the possibility that elite athletes can improve their performance in a noticable way with a technology that has an excellent track record of safety. However, this is still an area of much experimentation and research and may require varying electrode locations, current levels, and treatment times for each individual. It will be some time before enough experience is gained with enough athletes to know, for example, the proper setup and training techniques to improve basketball free-throw percentage, or football field-goal range and accuracy, etc. I can envision guide books (or at least web sites) that focus on particular sports and specific kinds of improvment and all the treatment variations that are possible.

In any case, stay tuned to your favorite sports news outlet as brain stimulation takes hold – and produces better scores and new records in all kinds of sports competition! This will be amazing to watch (and participate in.)

Web Links

Check out the following as a starting point of additional information on tDCS, brain stimulation, and safety:

www.speakwisdom.com

www.diytdcs.com

www.speakwisdom.com/2013/10/31/diy-tdcs-code-of-safety/

www.haloneuro.com

www.caputron.com

www.foc.us

www.thebrainstimulator.net

www.thync.com

*transcranial direct current stimulation

 

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