Neuroscience wearables: Do they actually enhance performance?

It has been argued that human athletic ability has plateaued, but that technology is pushing out the boundaries created by physiological limits. We’ve seen swimsuits move better through water, bikes become more aerodynamic, and running shoes get lighter. Now, neuroscience is getting in the game with the introduction of brain-boosting technology. In this article, I’ll discuss neuropriming and neurofeedback devices and offer my thoughts on whether or not the price tag is worth it.

Neuropriming

Neuropriming devices are based on transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Micro-electrodes are used to send small currents of electrical stimulation through the skull and into the brain. The use of tDCS isn’t new, but until now, its application has been mainly limited to neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression and post-traumatic stress.

Some devices are designed to help you reduce stress and sleep better, but the ones of particular interest in my profession are those specifically marketed to athletes and other high performers. Halo Sport is dominating this space and is endorsed by several top athletes.

The headphone-like design of the Halo system is driven by the location of the motor cortex, a strip of the brain that runs over the top of your head from ear to ear. The motor cortex sends electrical signals to muscle fibers, indicating when to fire, which ultimately results in motor movement. The idea behind neuropriming, a term only used by Halo, is to use mild electrical signals to induce a state of hyperplasticity, during which neurons require less input to fire (i.e. produce an action potential). Tens of thousands of neurons in the motor cortex are required to fire in specific patterns to signal the array of movements we’re able to perform. It makes sense that more efficient firing should result in faster motor learning.

So, how does this relate to athletic performance? Let’s say you’re a basketball player working on your free throw. During training, you put up hundreds of shots, providing input to your neurons about how your muscles must move to get the ball in the hoop. Over time, your brain fine tunes its firing pattern, resulting in a more consistent result and higher free throw percentage. You wear the Halo Sport for 20 minutes during warm-up and now your brain is primed to learn quicker. For the next hour, your neurons will be in a state of hyperplasticity whereby even less input (perhaps fewer shots) is needed to train your neurons how to fire. Theoretically, you made your training session more effective.

Research into the effect of neuropriming on various aspects of athletic performance has been somewhat inconclusive, but there are some interesting findings. Notably, tDCS seems to increase time-to-exhaustion and the perception of fatigue, as was studied with cyclists. It does not, however, seem to have an effect of maximal force production. It’s important to note that there seems to be variability in responses to tDCS in general (Wiethoff et al., 2014) and “results may not be typical”. The magnitude of change likely varies between individuals, and may be dependent on their sport and the motor skills involved. However, athletes recognize that even a slight edge can be beneficial for performance at the highest levels.

In my opinion: Previous studies have shown that weak currents to the motor cortex can increase motor learning in humans (Nitsche et al., 2003). The key variable is likely how these devices are used: what is the protocol? If there is only a short window (1 hour, in the case of Halo Sport) during which the brain is in this “hyperplastic” state, then what the athlete does during that hour is critical. The benefits of brain stimulation is a divisive topic among neuroscientists. But, that’s the beauty of science. Each study represents one brick in the big wall and it takes hundreds of studies for the wall to be built and for theories to be proven. In my opinion, the most important factor is that these devices are safe and athletes report benefits. Most of these devices are not FDA approved, but that’s not required since they are not medical devices.

Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is another category of wearable technology with the aim of enabling self-regulation through the modification of brain waves. Instead of these devices sending electrical stimulation to the brain, it’s gathering information from it, allowing you to use that information to change your mental state. Neurofeedback elevates the principle of biofeedback which, in its crudest form, can be achieved by taking your own pulse. The idea is simply using physiological parameters to assess your current brain state.

Commercial devices like Neuroptimal and Muse use EEG (electroencephalography) recordings to show the user their brain wave activity in real time while performing specific tasks. The user can then implement techniques to either up-regulate or down-regulate their breathing and, ultimately, their brain. The goal is for you, the user, to learn how to control your brain waves, which may benefit internal processes. For example, one case study of an injured Olympic athlete struggling with confidence found that neurofeedback training resulted in significant increases in beta waves in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with self-evaluation (Graczyk et al., 2014).

But, what about the claim that neurofeedback can enhance performance? The jury is still out. This is confounded by the fact that current studies use a range of methods to collect data and the baseline measures vary greatly. One study of amateur golfers found that neurofeedback training resulted in the athletes learning how to modulate their cortical activity to resemble patterns seen in expert golfers. However, this change in alpha brain waves did not correlated with improved putting performance (Ring et al., 2014). On the other hand, there are countless athletes who credit neurofeedback for enhancing their performance.

In my opinion: Neurofeedback definitely changes brain waves. But, how does that translate to performance? Right now, it seems limited to giving us insight into the state of our brain waves. Case studies indicate that there can be improvements in optimal arousal states, simply because your awareness has increased. If the goal is to enhance self-regulation of the brain, I think there’s value here. But, science does not yet know how that translates to performance. You still have to do the work. That’s the key.

The brain is the next frontier in unlocking athletic potential, so this growing interest in the application of neuroscience to sport performance is exciting. While the science is still in its infancy and hasn’t unequivocally confirmed the benefit of wearable neurotech, some of these devices definitely hold promise.

References

Beer, J. S., Lombardo, M. V., & Bhanji, J. P. (2010). Roles of Medial Prefrontal Cortex and Orbitofrontal Cortex in Self-evaluation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22(9), 2108–2119.

Graczyk, M., Pachalska, M., Ziolkowski, A., Manko, G., Lukaszewska, B., Kochanowicz, K., Mirski, A., Kropotov, I.D. (2014). Neurofeedback training for peak performance. Ann Agric Environ Med, 21(4): 871-875.

Nitsche, M.A., Schauenburg, A., Lang, N., Liebetanz, D., Exner, C., Paulus, W., and Tergau, F. (2003) Facilitation of Implicit Motor Learning by Weak Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation of the Primary Motor Cortex in the Human. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 15(4): 619-626.

Ring, C., Cooke, A., Kavussanu, M., McIntyre, D., and Masters, R. (2014). Investigating the efficacy of neurofeedback training for expediting expertise and excellence in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16(1): 118-127.

Wiethoff, S., Hamada, M., and Rothwell, J.C. (2014). Variability in response to transcranial direct current stimulation of the motor cortex. Brain stimulation, 7(3): 468-475.