Brain stimulation improves athletic performance

January 12, 2023

Is it possible to enhance athletic performance using brain stimulation? In a recent study in the journal Brain Stimulation, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with Leipzig University and the EuroMov research center at the University of Montpellier, explored this question. The results point to performance-enhancing effects when certain areas of the brain are stimulated in competitive athletes.

Higher, faster, further. This principle has accompanied competitive sports since the beginning of the Olympic Games. Athletes have a wide range of training methods at their disposal to optimize performance. In general, performance improvement decreases as the level of performance increases. But is there perhaps still untapped potential in every athlete? Research results from the field of non-invasive brain stimulation seem to confirm this assumption. For example, both strength and endurance performance can be increased in healthy non-athletes and athletes by stimulating specific areas of the brain. Nevertheless, the question remains whether such effects can actually be transferred to top-level sports. In other words, can peak athletic performance be enhanced by brain stimulation?

Using non-invasive brain stimulation, it is possible to influence the functioning of the brain with externally applied, weak electrical current. The study examined 19 research papers on the effects of brain stimulation in 258 competitive athletes in strength, endurance, or visual-motor dominated sports. The results demonstrated an improvement in sport-specific performance as a result of acute brain stimulation. "We were pleasantly surprised that even competitive athletes can show relevant performance gains within their sport as a result of brain stimulation," said Tom Maudrich, lead author of the study. Brain stimulation seems to be particularly effective in sports such as basketball or volleyball, where the coordination of visual perception and goal-directed movement execution is paramount.

Since the use of non-invasive brain stimulation in a sports context is comparatively new, it remains to be seen, according to the researchers, what influence this method will have in top-level sports in the coming years. Particularly interesting is the handling of ethical issues, e.g., the topic of "neuro-doping". Prof. Patrick Ragert, head of the study outlines: "Our results imply the unexploited potential of alternative methods such as non-invasive brain stimulation in the context of competitive sports. It will be exciting to see what role such methods will take in the future and how competitive sports will deal with them."

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