Olympic Athletes Are Experimenting with VR and Electric Brain Stimulation

The latest performance enhancement isn’t biological—it’s electric.

Athletes, desperate to get an edge on the competition, are escalating their mental preparation with technologies like virtual reality glasses and headphones that send an electric current into the brain. Manufactured by Halo Neuroscience, the over-the-ear headphones stimulate the motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for coordinating movement. Despite a lack of support from neuroscience research, the headphones are being tested by five athletes training for the upcoming Olympics in Rio.

Sprinters
Small margins can make a big difference in sprint competitions.

Here’s Mike Orcutt, reporting for MIT Technology Review:

The stimulation technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation, is a very popular subject of neuroscience research at the moment. Scientists have shown that delivering a small amount of electrical current can make neurons more or less likely to fire. And in the past 15 years a flurry of studies have suggested that the approach can be used for many things, from improving cognition to helping stroke patients regain movement.

Most of the studies have been small, though, and for many potential applications there is not yet enough data to tell if the stimulation actually works. Halo chose to target the motor cortex because it’s the area where there’s the most evidence that the technique does improve learning, says Chao [co-founder and CEO of Halo Neuroscience].

Halo’s website refers to the electrical stimulation as “a preworkout for the brain.”

In another quirky take on performance enhancement is using virtual reality and 360˚ viewing technology. It’s a high-tech remake of the old-school advice to visualize the finish line. The company VR-Vantage is producing video for athletes in sailing, canoe slalom and sailing.

The Engineer reports:

The video playback can be viewed on smartphones and headsets, giving athletes a fully immersive experience and allowing them to feel familiar in the environments in which they’ll be competing as well as understanding the characteristics of a course layout ahead of competition.

Olympic races are often won by a fraction of a second and athletes are willing to gamble on new technology for a slight edge. Over the next few weeks, we’ll see what pays off.