08. Neuroscience

The Exploding Science Behind NeuroTracker

May 31, 2019

The genesis of a vanguard psychophysics lab in Montreal, the science behind NeuroTracker has flourished like no other neurotechnology. We’re now approaching 10 years since NeuroTracker evolved out of the lab into the real-world. From the science moving on to other breakthroughs, neuroscience research has been on an exploding trajectory, growing at an ever-faster pace into a wide range of human performance domains. In this deep dive blog, we’ll cover a bird’s eye view of both the published, and behind the scenes findings of this training method, as well as why it’s a such a game-changer for human performance.

Sports Performance

With a plethora of professional sports teams using NeuroTracker, there have been some major sport science studies asking the 64-million-dollar question ‘Can cognitive training transfer onto the field?’ Three separate studies have come up positive. Soccer players provided the first compelling evidence, showing that 3 hours of training almost halved the number of passing decision-making errors that players made during competitive play.

The two other studies involved a mix of Olympians, and then a potpourri of elite athletes from completely different sports. Across the board, the training was reported to improve athletic performance. The Olympians were also given a rigorous battery of pre and post optometry assessments, which revealed specific gains in visual capacities, including visual acuity, stereopsis, and spatial contrast sensitivity. In these studies, questionnaire self-assessments by the athletes themselves, almost perfectly matched the objectively assessed performance improvements logged by their coaches.

Dr.Bach, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, emphasized the importance of this evidence for transfer to real-world performance in a Neuronfire podcast.

“…the studies are absolutely rock solid…elite athletes, people who look at fast moving targets for a living, retrain their brain because of neuroplasticity, so that…their cognitive function allows them to see things more quickly.  And that translates into a 15% improvement in passing efficiency. Now in professional sports where a 2% or 3% edge can make the difference, that’s an extraordinary finding.  I’m excited about this. This work basically teaches us…that you can train even the world’s best visual brains to become better, and that translates directly to into performance improvements.”

This is a key reason why US and Canadian Special Forces have adopted NeuroTracker. To give an example of how training the cognitive dimension matters, the US military conducted a study to see if risks associated with Close Quarter Battles could be reduced. These engagements include missions like clearing rooms in unpredictable environments, which even for elite soldiers has extremely high risks. Based on full simulation assessments, NeuroTracker with dual-task training reduced the likelihood of soldiers making critical errors in the midst of high-pressure situations.

Take away – NeuroTracker research is showing that cognitive training is set to take professional sports to a new level, paving the way for other high-performance domains.

Mental Resilience

We all know that when you are exhausted, it’s much more difficult to concentrate. For elite athletes this is a big deal, as it’s often when professionals are in their most fatigued state that competitions are won or lost. To test if mental resilience to such fatigue effects is trainable, international class French rugby players were put to test by sports scientists.

Athletes who had no prior NeuroTracker training were shown to have a dramatic drop in performance from being tested while sitting, to being tested while fatigued on an exercise bike. In contrast, the players who had already been training on NeuroTracker could still perform the task at close to their upper limits, even when they were exhausted. This is relevant because NeuroTracker is a key indicator of situational awareness, which is needed for effective decision-making.

The take-away - even for top athletes, fatigue can seriously impact mental abilities that are critical to performance on the field. Yet, when these abilities are trained-up in a focused way, a form of mental robustness can be achieved quickly.

Rest and Recovery Protocol

The French Federation of Rugby (FFR) discovered that players who were pre-trained on NeuroTracker could have their tracking performance boosted with a short bout of high-intensity exercise. If they first maxed out their cardio ability, then immediately performed NeuroTracker, they would typically score 20% higher than their current speed threshold.

This is concept known as the facilitation effect. In these rugby players, a hit of intense exercise triggered a temporary state of arousal in the brain, getting it into a higher gear. Other NeuroTracker research similarly found that the facilitation effect can be achieved by exposure to the excitement of sports stadium noise, boosting mental focus and learning rate.

However, the interesting part for the FFR, is that they then found no facilitation effect if the athlete was exhausted or physically punished from a match the day before. Overtraining, when not properly recovered, is a major risk factor for injuries in team sports. In fact, knowing when, or when not to train, is a critical yet difficult thing to judge, as it can vary from one athlete to the next. For this reason, the FFR developed a post-match testing protocol using NeuroTracker data to optimize rest and recovery times and reduce injury rates associated with overtraining.

The take away – the brain can be stimulated into overdrive with certain types of arousal states.  NeuroTracker can be used to detect this effect, opening up a new window into neurophysical performance.

Reversing Cognitive Decline

It’s well known that the natural effects of aging can take their toll on mental abilities. This was shown with a study that compared initial baselines of younger and older individuals on NeuroTracker. Otherwise healthy, the elderly participants’ tracking speeds were much lower than the young adults, signifying a form of cognitive decline.

However, it’s also known that the brain’s ability to retain neuroplasticity and neurogenesis can remain spritely until late in life. This was demonstrated when the same older participants undertook a 3-hour training program over several weeks. Somewhat dramatically, their NeuroTracker abilities rose so quickly, that they matched the level of their younger counterparts by the end of the program.

This is significant, because with the simplicity of the NeuroTracker task, there are negligible practice or technique related effects. In effect, improvement is a measure of functional neuroplasticity, with scores representing raw changes in brain state. A physical analogy would be retired people being able to bench press the same as young people after putting in just a few hours of training!

The question then, is does such a change actually transfer to real-world abilities? In this case the answer is yes. Elderly people are known to have significant problems reading human body language at close distances (when it is most difficult). This can impact quality of life in terms of social communication, but more importantly it makes it difficult to predict the actions of others. For example, when walking through a busy shopping mall, it increases the risks of bumping into someone and having a fall.

In a follow-up study, older people of the same age underwent the same training program, but this time their ability to read and predict human movement cues at close distance was assessed, both before and after the NeuroTracker training. The results showed a remarkable recovery in perception, demonstrating clear transfer to a real-world ability. Professor Faubert, the inventor of NeuroTracker, led the study and explained the value of the discovery,

‘’We saw no difference in the plasticity between the elderly and young adults.  Of course, their abilities are much lower to start, but the progression rate was the same.  We’ve shown that that change…actually transfers into something meaningful for them.  When we looked at their ability to read body movement cues, we saw that their ability was improved dramatically.”

Supporting this, a group of Brazilian neuroscientists conducted an in-depth case study of a single elderly person with memory problems. Performing the cognitive training alongside neuropsychological assessments over a 12-month period, the overall findings showed improvements in memory, stress levels, confidence and quality of life.

The take-away – even in healthy aging, the effects of cognitive decline can be significant. However, recovery of lost abilities can also be dramatic, and this can measurably benefit real-life needs.

Learning through Feedback

Neurofeedback is essentially a way to look into what is going on in someone’s brain. Generally speaking, it is best known through EEG, a way to measure electrical activity in the brain. Neurofeedback specialist’s setup an experiment to measure live brainwave activity of people while NeuroTracking, and found distinct differences between being in the zone tracking the targets correctly, and losing them mid-trial.

This led to an innovative pilot study, where each time the signature for losing track of targets was detected, NeuroTracker would re-highlight the targets while still in motion – a kind of ‘hey I’m here!’. This meant there was no need to actually identify the targets at any point, and so training could be more intensive. The result was an even faster learning rate than normal on the task.

That said, just the NeuroTracker answer phase has been shown in a study to be a highly effective learning aid. When people just track and identify, but without finding out if they got the targets correct or not, then scores drop significantly. It turns out that NeuroTracker provides a constant form of functional neurofeedback – an introspective window into how our brains are operating when pushed near their limits. And because it is so frequent, people directly benefit from surprises like ‘Wow, I was really that far off?’ In this sense the research shows that NeuroTracker provides a form of self-awareness training, which people adapt to quickly.

The take-away – even if doing exactly the same NeuroTracker task, feedback amplifies learning through an increase in self-awareness.

Cognitive Assessment

Traditionally speaking, if you wanted to assess how well a person can actually function at a mental level, the standard approach is pen and paper style neuropsychological assessments. As these are very focused on very specific brain functions, there is a recognized need for more robust measures which relate to real-world performance.

For this reason, many independent research groups have been putting NeuroTracker through its paces, to see if it helps reveal how people tick in various situations. In the field of sports, this includes revealing the special traits of world-class athletes, the cognitive effects of hydration for endurance athletes, predicting the competition stats of NBA players, running behavior in team-sports, and profiling up and coming stars in the NFL and NHL Combines.

However, the applications have been far more varied than just sports, including correlating surgery skills and driving safety, to assessing the mental demands for flying a fighter jet and measuring the brain benefits of exercise regimes. Then at a level that applies to pretty much anyone, NeuroTracker scores have been found to correlate with fluid intelligence, standardized cognitive assessments, as well as revealing how attention and stereo perception both develop, and decline, from childhood to old age.

Take away – just tracking balls bouncing around a 3D environment can yield a surprising amount of new knowledge into our how our grey matter really works.

The Power of the Cognitive Dimension

The field of Neuroscience is gaining ever greater momentum, yielding exciting prospects for new understandings our cognitive abilities, and then enhancing them far and wide. As we’ve seen from these research highlights, there is lots to learn in this exciting space. The snowballing research driving NeuroTracker is a great example of just how quickly new knowledge, about how each and every one of us functions between the ears, can benefit us all.

If you’d like to delve a little deeper into NeuroTracker, then you can view NeuroTracker published research here.

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