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‘Brain doping’ could improve athletic performance

With the 2016 Olympics having recently ended, many techniques elite athletes use to ensure optimal performance have made the headlines. While some methods are infamous for their illegal status, others are up and coming as the latest innovations in sports science and technology. One such technique in the very early stages of research, deemed ‘brain doping,’ uses electrical stimulation in certain regions of the brain to enhance performance.

Currently, the US Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) is the latest group to test the new technology in conjunction with the Halo Neuroscience Institute in San Francisco, California. The group hopes to use results from seven skiers participating in the study to see if the stimulation makes it easier for them to hone in on their skill. Another hypothesis in support of the stimulation claims that it can reduce an athlete’s perception of fatigue.

The device, made by Halo, delivers electricity to the motor cortex region of the skiers’ brain. For two weeks, four times per week, the skiers jumped onto an unstable platform. Four of the athletes received the electrical stimulation, while the other three received a placebo procedure. Those who received the stimulation had a 70% improvement in jumping force and an 80% improvement in coordination compared with the placebo group.

While the unpublished study produced promising results, the small size of the study and others like it makes it impossible to come to any decisive conclusions. These results are still very much preliminary. Additionally, little is known about the long-term effects of electrical stimulation on the brain. Still, as seen with other techniques such as ‘cupping,’ a technique used by Michael Phelps during this Olympic Games, a lack of published evidence does not stop athletes striving toward the next level. Even videogamers have started to take up the technique because it seems to improve dexterity.

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