Series| The Edge

Top athletes are shocking their brains with tDCS

Sending electric currents to the brain via a tDCS device could be the next major trend in athletic training. But does it work?
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Already known for its potential to treat depression, neuromuscular diseases, and traumatic brain injuries, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) might also present a major breakthrough in athletic performance training.

The basic principle of tDCS – sending a mild electrical current through the brain for therapeutic benefit – is nothing new. In fact, ancient Romans used the electric shocks from torpedo fish to relieve headaches.

Today, Halo Neuroscience and professional athletes are using an innovatively designed tDCS device to improve their performance, muscular endurance, and athletic abilities all around. 

A Closer Look at Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation

A form of neurostimulation, tDCS uses constant, direct electrical currents to stimulate particular parts of the brain. The administration of this low-intensity current puts the targeted portion of the brain into a heightened state of neuroplasticity, in which the brain can form new neural pathways and strengthen existing ones more quickly.

In other words, the brain learns more quickly when in the hyperplastic state induced by tDCS. There’s a large library of research papers outlining studies that demonstrate the ability of tDCS to increase learning capacity and improve motor skill development.

Traditionally, tDCS is administered in a laboratory-like setting, with a patient wearing what looks like a wired shower cap. But the tDCS device designed by Halo Neuroscience fashionably resembles a pair of high-quality headphones.

Halo Neuroscience created the headset to deliver an electrical current directly to the part of the brain responsible for controlling movement – the motor cortex. Stimulated by the device, these brain cells enter a hyperplastic state.

The neurons fire more frequently, helping to strengthen the neural pathways associated with any activity that involves muscle memory, strength, and physical endurance.

When an athlete wears the tDCS device for 20 minutes, which Halo Neuroscience refers to as “neuropriming,” they should be in a hyperplastic state for 60 minutes, during which they’ll be able to train much more effectively. 

Athletic Training With Brain Stimulation 

When you think about athleticism, you likely think about the body first — muscle strength, heart rate, and physical endurance. But the truth is, the brain is responsible for a major part of athletic ability. Yes, you need muscle fiber to run, swim, and lift weights, but without the brain, those fibers would be useless because each one is controlled by the nervous system.

To be in great shape, an athlete needs to be physically intelligent. And using transcranial direct current stimulation, athletes can train the athletic centers of their brains while they train their bodies.

To explain the science behind athletic training with tDCS, Halo Neuroscience uses the example of learning to shoot a free throw in basketball. If you’ve never shot a free throw before, when you practice, you’ll be learning from scratch, forming completely new neural pathways in your brain’s center for movement.

With each shot, you’ll strengthen the neural pathway and create a muscle memory. In a hyperplastic state induced by tDCS, these neural pathways and muscle memories develop much more quickly. Training in a hyperplastic state will help you get the most out of your time and improve your performance faster.

The free throw example specifically refers to forming muscle memory, the type of training that helps with coordination and motor skill development. tDCS can also help the body develop stamina, strength, and endurance. 

How to Build Endurance and Strength with tDCS

Many athletes focus on strength training when they want to increase their stamina, but growing stronger isn’t just about building new muscle fibers. To become stronger an athlete also needs to train their brain to use the new muscle fibers the body develops during strength training.

If the brain has yet to develop new neural pathways to control the new muscle fibers, then they won’t contract when the athlete lifts. However, when an athlete trains in a hyperplastic or “neuroprimed” state, the brain more quickly learns how to recruit additional muscle fibers to gain more force with each rep.

The brain’s part in strength training is called “neural drive,” and training with a tDCS device can accelerate the development of neural drive by almost 10%.

Endurance athletes already know that running a marathon or participating in a triathlon requires incredible mental stamina in addition to physical ability. For most athletes who train regularly, their brains will grow tired long before their bodies actually become physically exhausted.

A runner or cyclist, for example, might not be able to lift a water bottle, even though they haven’t been using their arms. This perceived physical exhaustion occurs when the brain is too tired to operate the body. The feeling is called central fatigue, and it actually occurs due to weaker signals being sent to the muscles from the brain’s motor cortex.

Endurance athletes need their brains to send strong electrical signals to their muscles over sustained periods of time. Endurance training in a state of hyperplasticity can help the brain strengthen the motor cortex, increasing its ability to stave off central fatigue.   

The Evidence for Endurance Training with tDCS

With tDCS training, both strength trainers and endurance athletes are breaking through new physical barriers by addressing and strengthening the brain’s role in physical performance.

For example, peer-reviewed research has shown that training with the Halo Neuroscience tDCS device improves performance up to 15%. A placebo-controlled study of U.S. Olympic skiers and snowboarders yielded 45% faster results in training.

In addition to the multitude of studies backing the principles of tDCS, much anecdotal evidence has also gathered. Ironman Champion Tim O’Donnell credits his constant improvement and strongest win (which made him the first American to break the 8-hour barrier in Hawaii) to training with Halo’s tDCS device.

Although the studies behind tDCS and athletic training specifically are fairly limited and athletic improvements outside of professional athletes can be difficult to measure, the evidence we do have seems to be strongly positive.

Plus, the years of research on tDCS have yet to point to any significant negative side effects which have arisen as a result of brain stimulation.

With numerous professionals reporting the positive results and safety of transcranial direct current stimulation, more athletes, dancers, and even musicians are choosing to embrace its empowering effects.

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