The Elec­tric Ga­torade Acid Test

How biz ar r e ne w tech­nolo­gies ar e un­lock ing t he mind’s t r ue po t en t ial f or max­i­mum per f or mance

Canadian Running - - CONTENTS - By Alex Hutchin­son

In sports sci­ence writer Alex Hutchin­son’s quest to dis­cover the lim­its of hu­man en­durance, he ex plores t he po­ten­tial for new ways to hack the brain for bet­ter per­for­mance. Hutchin­son trav­els to Los An­ge­les and of­fers him­self as the guinea pig, un­der­go­ing a se­ries of tests to see if elec­tric stim­u­la­tion of the brain can pro­vide a mea­sur­able ad­van­tage for en­durance ath­letes.

Icouldn’t help feel­ing a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sive as I fit­ted the head­phones over my ears and pressed the elec­trodes – a fakir’s bed of semi-rigid foam spikes that ran from ear to ear across the top of my head – into my scalp. I’m fond of my brain, and have never had any par­tic­u­lar de­sire to run an elec­tric cur­rent through it. But cu­rios­ity had trumped my mis­giv­ings, so I was about to try the new­est thing in next-gen­er­a­tion per­for­mance en­hance­ment. A Sil­i­con Val­ley startup called Halo Neu­ro­science had sent me a pair of their brain-stim­u­lat­ing head­phones, which, ac­cord­ing to their mar­ket­ing hype as well as a smat­ter­ing of aca­demic re­search, would su­per­charge my train­ing and boost my en­durance. I tapped the start but­ton on the ac­com­pa­ny­ing iPod con­troller – but in­stead of a jolt of en­light­en­ment, I got a scold­ing beep in my ears. “Poor con­tact,” the iPod ad­mon­ished me. “Ad­just your head­set un­til the coloured bars dis­ap­pear.”

I had first writ­ten about brain stim­u­la­tion way back in 2013, when a small study from re­searchers in Brazil showed that 20 min­utes of a then-ob­scure tech­nique called “tran­scra­nial di­rect-cur­rent stim­u­la­tion,” or tdcs, boosted the peak power in a sub­se­quent cy­cling test by four per cent. This re­sult seemed like a re­ally big deal in the lon­grun­ning de­bate about whether the lim­its of en­durance re­side in the mind or in the mus­cles. If a few volts to the frontal cor­tex makes you faster, doesn’t this prove that, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, you’re al­ways ca­pa­ble of push­ing a bit harder? The idea was fas­ci­nat­ing – and also, with the loom­ing spec­tre of “brain dop­ing,” a bit trou­bling.

Sub­se­quent stud­ies, though, pro­duced mixed re­sults, leav­ing it un­clear whether the tech­nique re­ally worked. When Halo ap­proached me in the fall of 2016, I couldn’t re­sist the op­por­tu­nity to try it for my­self. I was writ­ing a book about the lim­its of en­durance, and dis­cov­er­ing how to tran­scend them at the press of a but­ton would make a per­fect fi­nal chap­ter, I fig­ured. Ex­cept that I couldn’t get the head­phones to work. I wig­gled the elec­trodes, ad­justed the head­phone fit, and re-primed the elec­trodes with saline so­lu­tion, but ap­par­ently my bald pate, weath­ered by too many harsh Cana­dian win­ters, was im­per­vi­ous to elec­tric­ity.

Fi­nally, by press­ing the head­phones into my scalp as hard as I could and hold­ing them there, I man­aged to achieve elec­tri­cal con­tact. When the cur­rent started, it felt like ants crawl­ing on my scalp… then like ants bit­ing my scalp… then like acid eat­ing into my scalp. I ramped the cur­rent down from a medium set­ting to the low­est pos­si­ble, which made it barely tol­er­a­ble. By the end of the 20-minute neu­ro­prim­ing ses­sion, I was a wreck. I had an­gry red welts dot­ted across my head where the elec­trodes had pressed in. I went out­side for the fartlek work­out I had planned, and ran like crap.

Peo­ple have been shock­ing their brains for fun and profit since long be­fore any­one un­der­stood what elec­tric­ity was. Scri­bo­nius Lar­gus, the court physi­cian for the Ro­man em­peror Claudius more than 2,000 years ago, rec­om­mended the ap­pli­ca­tion of a live tor­pedo fish – an elec­tric ray ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing up to 200 volts at a time – to the fore­head for re­lief of headaches, and other cul­tures around the world pre­scribed elec­tric fish for ev­ery­thing from epilepsy to ex­or­cism. The brain, af­ter all, is ba­si­cally a gi­ant elec­tric cir­cuit com­posed of neu­rons that com­mu­ni­cate with each other by fir­ing elec­tric dis­charges. Th­ese days, talk of elec­tric­ity and the brain tends to pro­voke com­ments about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But the tiny cur­rents

“If a few volts to the front al cor­tex makes you faster, doesn’t this prove that, un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, you’ re al­ways ca­pa­ble of push­ing a bit harder? The idea was fas­ci­nat­ing—and also, with the loom­ing spec­tre of “brain do ping ,” a bit trou­bling .”

in­volved in brain stim­u­la­tion tech­niques like tdcs, which can be gen­er­ated with a sim­ple nine-volt bat­tery con­nected to a cou­ple of elec­trodes on your head, are 500 to 1,000 times smaller than those used in elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­apy. The cur­rents in tdcs don’t cause neu­rons to fire; they just al­ter the sen­si­tiv­ity of the neu­rons, mak­ing them slightly more likely to fire (or, if you run the cur­rent in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, less likely to fire) for about an hour af­ter­ward. The pre­cise place­ment of the elec­trodes de­ter­mines which re­gions of your brain the cur­rent f lows through, which in turn de­ter­mines the ef­fects. There have been thou­sands of stud­ies in the last few years on tdcs for en­hanc­ing learn­ing, fight­ing ad­dic­tion and de­pres­sion, as well as nu­mer­ous other goals. And af­ter the Brazil­ian study was pub­lished in 2013, the sports world was sud­denly in­ter­ested too.

In 2014, I f lew to Los An­ge­les to spend a week at the Santa Mon­ica head­quar­ters of Red Bull, the en­ergy drink and ex­treme-sports be­he­moth. In keep­ing with their bound­ary­push­ing rep­u­ta­tion, they’d brought in five of their world-class cy­clists and triath­letes to par­tic­i­pate in a cross be­tween a train­ing camp and a sci­ence ex­per­i­ment that they dubbed Project En­durance. Un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Dy­lan Ed­wards and David Putrino, a pair of Aus­tralian neu­ro­sci­en­tists from Weill Cor­nell Med­i­cal Col­lege in New York, the ath­letes would be poked, prod­ded and re­peat­edly pushed to ex­haus­tion on sta­tion­ary bikes and then in time tri­als at a nearby velo­drome, with and with­out tdcs.

For Ed­wards and Putrino, the Red Bull project was an op­por­tu­nity to high­light the link be­tween ath­letic train­ing and phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion from con­di­tions like brain and spinal cord in­juries, which is their pri­mary re­search in­ter­est. “Whether you’re a high­end ath­lete or a pa­tient fight­ing locked-in syn­drome, you’re deal­ing with the same lim­i­ta­tions of mus­cle fa­tigue,” Putrino ex­plained. In ei­ther case, the sig­nals that the brain sends to the mus­cles get pro­gres­sively weaker as you fa­tigue – an “in your head” lim­i­ta­tion that the re­searchers hoped brain stim­u­la­tion might re­verse. “The brain is mak­ing a choice,” he said. “But the brain’s opin­ion isn’t al­ways right.”

Over the next few days, I watched the ath­letes do bat­tle with each other and with their own lim­its, over and over. It soon

be­came clear that with a such a small and mis­matched group of ath­letes (a moun­tain biker, a cy­clocross racer, a bmx rider and a pair of Iron­man triath­letes, one of whom had to drop out be­cause of an in­jury), it would be im­pos­si­ble to draw any real con­clu­sions about whether brain stim­u­la­tion worked. Still, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to see the ath­letes wres­tle with the idea that their phys­i­cal lim­its might not be as im­mutable as they thought. Get­ting the ath­letes to be­lieve this, Red Bull’s chief phys­i­ol­o­gist told me, was one of the main mo­ti­va­tions for hold­ing the camp.

Mean­while, aca­demic re­search on brain stim­u­la­tion’s sports po­ten­tial con­tin­ued to pro­duce mixed re­sults. That didn’t stop the idea from be­ing com­mer­cial­ized, of course. In March 2016, as the Golden State War­riors rolled to­ward a record-break­ing Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion sea­son, power for­ward James Michael McA­doo tweeted a photo of him­self try­ing out a pro­to­type of Halo Neu­ro­science’s tdcs head­phones. The War­riors are owned by Sil­i­con Val­ley ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and have ac­quired a rep­u­ta­tion as “tech’s team,” so it made sense that they would be among the first pro ath­letes to try brain stim­u­la­tion – even though Halo’s de­vice hadn’t yet (and, as I write this, still hasn’t) been val­i­dated by any peer-re­viewed re­search.

Dur­ing that year’s nba play­offs, I wrote an ar­ti­cle for the New Yorker about Golden State’s use of brain stim­u­la­tion. It felt like a fairly scathing ar­ti­cle to me, es­sen­tially la­belling the tech­nique as a su­per-placebo. (“The some­what cir­cu­lar power of the head­phones,” I wrote, “may be that they en­hance the ben­e­fits of be­liev­ing in the head­phones.”) But in keep­ing with P.T. Bar­num’s dic­tum about bad public­ity, Halo was de­lighted. They con­tacted me im­me­di­ately af­ter the ar­ti­cle ap­peared to see if I’d like to try a four-week trial of the head­phones. And, cu­rios­ity trump­ing my mis­giv­ings, I said yes.

Af­ter my first failed brain-stim­u­lated work­out, I got in touch with Brett Wingeier, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist with a PhD in bio­med­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing who co-founded Halo Neu­ro­science in 2013. My strug­gles were a lit­tle un­usual, but not un­prece­dented, he told me – in fact, the post-neu­ro­prim­ing pic­tures I’d sent him of my pock­marked scalp were pretty much how he looked af­ter us­ing the de­vice. “Most peo­ple get the lit­tle tem­po­rary dim­ples, re­lated to the mild pres­sure of the nibs, and a small amount of red­ness re­lated to in­creased blood sup­ply in the scalp,” he ex­plained. “In­ter­est­ingly, it’s guys like us with rel­a­tively lit­tle hair who have the high­est skin re­sis­tance. Our skin gets a lit­tle tougher from be­ing out in the el­e­ments.”

Wingeier gave me some tips on get­ting the head­phones to fit com­fort­ably and in­creas­ing the cur­rent grad­u­ally, and I re­solved to keep try­ing. But I never re­ally got the hang of it. Some­times it took so long to achieve elec­tri­cal con­tact that I would even­tu­ally have to give up in or­der to meet my run­ning part­ners on time. And when I did suc­ceed in run­ning the cur­rent through my brain, the over­all dis­com­fort of the ex­pe­ri­ence al­ways left me drained and f lus­tered, so I never had a good work­out. It’s clear that my ex­pe­ri­ence was un­usu­ally bad – and this is one of the rea­sons I don’t put too much weight on first-per­son prod­uct re­views. The leath­ery tough­ness of my scalp cer­tainly doesn’t mean that brain stim­u­la­tion doesn’t work in gen­eral. But it did put a damper on my own en­thu­si­asm for the tech­nol­ogy.

In the wake of this dis­ap­point­ment, I stopped pay­ing at­ten­tion to brain stim­u­la­tion re­search for a while. The ini­tial ex­cite­ment of the Brazil­ian study in 2013 had been fol­lowed by a mud­dle of con­tra­dic­tory re­sults and an overly hasty rush to com­mer­cial­ize the idea. A re­view

of the field in 2017, from a sci­en­tific team at the Univer­sity of Kent’s En­durance Re­search Group led by Alexis Mauger, seemed to con­firm my grow­ing skep­ti­cism. Only eight of the 12 stud­ies they iden­ti­fied showed im­prove­ments in en­durance fol­low­ing tdcs, and the suc­cess rate was even lower in stud­ies of ac­tual ex­er­cise like run­ning or cy­cling (as op­posed to con­trived lab­o­ra­tory tests like iso­met­ric el­bow-f lexor en­durance).

But hid­den among th­ese conf lict­ing re­sults were a few sug­ges­tive pat­terns re­gard­ing the best method of ap­ply­ing the elec­tric cur­rent. The tdcs stim­u­la­tion tech­nique in­volves run­ning a cur­rent be­tween two elec­trodes; the neu­rons un­der one elec­trode get slightly eas­ier to trig­ger, while the neu­rons un­der the other elec­trode get slightly harder to trig­ger. It’s pos­si­ble, Mauger re­al­ized, that the pos­i­tive ef­fects of stim­u­la­tion in one re­gion of the brain might be can­celled out by neg­a­tive ef­fects in an­other re­gion. The so­lu­tion is to put one elec­trode on the head and the other on the shoul­der, so that the cur­rent runs through the brain in only one di­rec­tion. It’s also not enough to use one pair of elec­trodes for a full-body ex­er­cise like run­ning or cy­cling – which, af­ter all, in­volve two legs con­trolled by two dis­tinct ar­eas in the brain. In­stead, you need two pairs of elec­trodes.

Mauger and his col­leagues tried th­ese ad­just­ments in a cou­ple of small pilot stud­ies. They worked. So, in the Jan­uary 2018 is­sue of the jour­nal Brain Stim­u­la­tion, they pub­lished a bomb­shell. They had 12 vol­un­teers com­plete a se­ries of time-to-ex­haus­tion tests on an ex­er­cise bike, with real or sham tdcs us­ing two pairs of elec­trodes mounted on the head and shoul­der. In the placebo trial, the cy­clists lasted an av­er­age of 10 min­utes and 13 sec­onds in the time-toex­haus­tion test; with tdcs, they lasted 12 min­utes and 37 sec­onds, an eye-pop­ping im­prove­ment of 23.5 per cent. (It’s worth not­ing

“There is no known way to de­tect re­li­ably whether or not a per­son has re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced brain stim­u­la­tion .”

that changes in time-to-ex­haus­tion tests, where the speed or power is fixed, tend to be much larger than changes in races or time tri­als where you set your own speed. A 23.5-per cent boost in time to ex­haus­tion cor­re­sponds to a de­crease of two or three per cent in race time – still highly sig­nif­i­cant, but not of mid­pack-to-Olympian mag­ni­tude.)

While it’s still too early to de­clare the sci­ence set­tled, Mauger’s re­sults strongly bol­ster the case that brain stim­u­la­tion re­ally works to en­hance en­durance. And that raises some se­ri­ous and im­por­tant ques­tions for all of us – ath­letes, sports of­fi­cials, par­ents – to con­sider. Back in 2013, when I spoke to Alexan­der Okano, the lead au­thor of the Brazil­ian study that opened the tdcs f lood­gates, he’d warned me that the tech­nique could pro­vide “ben­e­fits com­pa­ra­ble to us­ing drugs.” He added, “there is no known way to de­tect re­li­ably whether or not a per­son has re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced brain stim­u­la­tion.” With no reg­u­la­tion, en­durance ath­letes have al­ready started us­ing it. Iron­man triath­lete Ti­mothy O’Don­nell and Tour de France cy­clist-turned-triath­lete An­drew Talan­sky are among those pub­licly us­ing Halo’s head­phones – and that’s prob­a­bly just the vis­i­ble tip of a much big­ger ice­berg. Given Mauger’s find­ings about elec­trode place­ment, ath­letes may not be get­ting much ben­e­fit from it right now, but it won’t take long for them to start get­ting it right .

Mauger, de­spite his sci­en­tific in­ter­est in what brain stim­u­la­tion can tell us about the na­ture of hu­man lim­its, has sim­i­lar con­cerns. “I think this has im­pli­ca­tions for the eth­i­cal use of such meth­ods in sport,” he told me, “and I still have con­cerns about the safety of th­ese de­vices, par­tic­u­larly when used reg­u­larly for a long pe­riod. I would like to see anti-dop­ing and sport­ing bod­ies take some ini­tia­tive on this, and con­sider whether they think tdcs is some­thing that should be reg­u­lated in their sport.”

Not ev­ery­one shares th­ese con­cerns. Nick Davis, a sports psy­chol­o­gist at Manch­ester Metropoli­tan Univer­sity in Bri­tain, has ar­gued that “neu­rodop­ing” should not be con­sid­ered un­eth­i­cal, since it merely helps the brain get the most out of what’s al­ready present in the body. Brain stim­u­la­tion “me­di­ates a per­son’s abil­ity but does not en­hance it in the strictest sense,” he wrote in the jour­nal Sports Medicine. It’s not cheat­ing, in other words, be­cause it doesn’t al­ter the phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics that – we’ve al­ways as­sumed – de­ter­mine the lim­its of per­for­mance.

I agree that this is an im­por­tant de­bate that we need to have sooner rather than later. But to me, Davis’s ar­gu­ment mis­char­ac­ter­izes the essence of en­durance. Push­ing your lim­its as a run­ner has al­ways been as much about the brain as the body – both dur­ing the painstak­ing process of train­ing and in the supreme ef­fort of the race. The great­est cham­pi­ons are those who can har­ness their minds to squeeze ev­ery last twitch from their mus­cles. To (lit­er­ally) short-cir­cuit this strug­gle by mak­ing your body’s full mea­sure ac­ces­si­ble with the press of a but­ton is to re­duce sport to a plumb­ing con­test, where the win­ner of the race is merely a ques­tion of who has the big­gest heart and the widest ar­ter­ies. Part of what gets me out the door on cold win­ter morn­ings is the mys­tery and uncer­tainty about how deep I’ll man­age to dig – so per­son­ally, I hope that sports of­fi­cials will en­sure that brain stim­u­la­tion re­mains noth­ing more than a re­search tool. But then again, maybe I’m just say­ing that be­cause my scalp is so in­con­ve­niently tough.

BE SURE TO CHECK OUT EN­DURE: MIND, BODY, AND THE CU­RI­OUSLY ELAS­TIC LIM­ITS OF HU­MAN PER­FOR­MANCE AVAIL ABLE NOW, FROM HARPERCOLLINS

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