08. Neuroscience

Is Neuroscience the Future of Sports Science?

October 25, 2018

Athletes spend a great amount of time and effort working out to be physically ready for the rigors of playing sports. They do strength and conditioning exercises, plyometrics, and interval training to improve their strength, speed, quickness, balance, coordination, reflexes, and endurance. This approach is all well and good; after all, the bigger, faster, quicker and more explosive an athlete is, the better.

But if the body is being trained, shouldn’t athletes also train the brain? This is exactly the concept behind the founding of deCervo, described by The Star as “a baseball-focused company founded by a pair of neuroscientists.” According to deCervo co-founders Jordan Muraskin and Jason Sherwin, it is possible to measure, and ultimately train, a batter’s ability to recognize pitches. It is, as the The Star notes, “about the effectiveness of one’s neural processors,” which can purportedly be trained by deCervo. Sherwin calls this “finding the million-dollar brain” and it is both intriguing and contentious at the same time.

Focusing on the Brain

New York Times contributor Zach Schonbrun, who authored The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius, is one of deCervo’s firm believers. In an interview with the New York Times about his book, Schonbrun expressed optimism that the concept behind deCervo is legitimate science, and that it can translate to pretty much any other sport apart from baseball. “. . . The idea of using neuroscience to look at decision making — and really fast, rapid decision making — I think can be used in other domains,” explains Schonbrun. “Certainly, in sports like tennis, which is another reactionary sport and even football; how the quarterback makes decisions, or how a lineman jumps off the ball, and so on.”

Additionally, there is the possibility that deCervo’s method can be used to at least detect brain conditions as well, including those that we discussed in ‘5 Risks of Repetitive Head Impacts’. Most notable is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, like football players. Granted, the NFL is already maximising technology to protect its players when it comes to concussions, with Coral discussing the introduction of smart helmets in the league. These hi-tech helmets use sensors and magnet technology to detect and reduce the risk of brain injuries. Then again, CTE results from an accumulation of head hits and routine monitoring of the brain would greatly complement the use of smart helmets.

Using Electricity to Amp Up Neurons

While deCervo seems focused more on the theoretical side of things as of the moment, Halo Neuroscience is taking things several notches higher. Made by Halo Sport, this hi-tech, headphone-looking wearable applies electrical pulses to the motor cortex. The idea behind Halo Neuroscience is to “trigger a neuroplasticity state in which neurons in the motor cortex can more easily build and strengthen neural connections to muscles.” The motor cortex, happens to be the region involved in the planning, control and execution of voluntary movements (think running, jumping, etc.) and routinely putting it in neuroplasticity state means, at least in theory, improvements in movement.

From the Lab to the Field

Oakland Raiders cornerback TJ Carrie uses Halo, and he swears by it, firmly convinced that it has helped him make considerable athletic gains. Perhaps it has truly helped Carrie, who has gained 6 inches on his vertical leap and has added 100 pounds on his body squat. Then again, it might be entirely possible that those same gains were caused by his lower body workouts.

Technology is now truly an integral part of sports, with more and more athletes turning to gain an advantage, like an increase in vertical leap in the case of Carrie. In other words, technology, when used correctly, can give athletes a competitive edge, and with that, a better chance of winning. Evidently, neuroscience is the next frontier for technology in sports, and the gains it can yield may be more than marginal.

Like NeuroTracker, these are just some examples of how technology and neuroscience are fusing together for new methods of performance enhancement, but there are many other coming to market quickly. Expect big changes for the sports world in coming years.

This blog was written for NeuroTracker by guest writer Andrea Camper.

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