The speed of technological advancement and the daring nature of athletes often outpaces the underfunded World Anti-Doping Association’s ability to spit out new regulations. WADA and its national offshoots will pretty much dismiss new techniques as superstition until they’re scientifically proven to help. That proof is critical because athletes do a lot of weird stuff and kissing a crucifix isn’t cheating. Running an electrical current through your brain, however, might be.
Transcranial direct current stimulation is entry-level transhumanist stuff, the sort of thing Mario speedrunners with engineering degrees try in their garage. It isn’t very hard to set up a rig using batteries to drive DC current to electrodes. What happens then is a bit confusing. Many people say that tDCS primes users’ brains to perform tasks or learn or experience joy or accomplish an athletic feat. Others say that competitors might as well put socks on and shuffle across a carpet for all the good tDCS will do.
In an attempt to figure out where tDCS falls on the spectrum stretching between placeboes and Lance Armstrong’s EPO, Inverse spoke to a few experts in the field. The [three criteria] WADA uses to decide whether or not to place their scarlet “W” on a substance or practice, provided a perfect roadmap to find an answer.
1) Does it have the potential to enhance or enhances sport potential?
Dr. Alexandre Okano, an independent researcher out of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, has conducted numerous controlled studies specifically on the effects of neurostimulation on athletic performance. In one experiment he found that stimulated cyclist improved their performance by 4 percent.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider this: If top distance runners could achieve a 4 percent increase in performance, they could potentially run the first sub two-hour marathons. What his work seems to indicate is that tDCS can help the body function more efficiently when exerted or under stress.
Dr. Brett Wingeier, CTO and co-founder of Halo Neuroscience, which sells Beats By Dre looking consumer rigs designed specifically for athletes is pretty much counting on this. Wingeier told Inverse that his tech targets the motor cortex and helps athletes achieve “hyperplasticity,” a mental state of extreme readiness.
Halo Neuroscience supplies teams in every major U.S. sport, the U.S. Olympic Ski team, and many of the Olympians competing in Rio, but he won’t name names. Wingeier says every Halo headset ever produced has been sold, which is indicative — if nothing else — of the demand for a training edge.
Meaning… Given the laboratory tests and high level of adoption among professionals, there’s almost certainly something there.
2) Does the substance or practice represent an actual or potential health risk to the athlete?
An open-letter authored by top researchers in the field of neurostimulation was published in the July edition of the journal Annals of Neuroscience. The missive urged caution on do-it-yourself tDCSers to be careful, pointing out that uncontrolled environments present hazards and that no one is sure what’s going to happen 20 years down the line.
Dr. Marom Bikson, professor of biomedical engineering at the City College of New York and founder of Soterix Medical Inc., a company that produces tDCS equipment, signed that letter. But Bikson isn’t terribly concerned that the electrical currents themselves are likely to hurt anyone. He’s a proponent of tDCS. He just thinks self-electrocution could maybe possibly go wrong for someone at some point.
“These pleas for caution should be taken as sort of a, ‘We don’t know, so you better be careful’,” he says. “There’s no evidence that tDCS causes irreversible decrease in function or brain injury, there just isn’t.”
Bikson says this after a decade of hypothesis-driven research, much of which has been published in reputable journals.
Meaning… It doesn’t seem like there’s too much chance of an adverse effect — though super long term study hasn’t happened just yet.
3) Is it in the spirit of the sport?
It’s hard to determine what the spirit of something is, let alone whether or not an external influencer fits within that subjectively defined framework. One way to look at the “spirit of sport” is access. The problem with the Speedo LRZ swimsuit wasn’t that it was super effective at speeding up swimmers. The problem was that not all swimmers could afford one. In a sense, this is the same issue with blood doping. There’s not a moral imperative to not do it — kids aren’t trying to figure this stuff out — just the sense that it privileges some athletes over others.
The reality is that tDCS setups aren’t super expensive to buy or make, but they still create inequality without adding much to competitions.
Still, that inequality is kind of subtle because stimulation can really only ever help an athlete train. As Wingeier puts it: “If you use this sitting on your couch, you’re just going to get better sitting on your couch.”
*Meaning… Who the hell knows? The WADA prompt is clearly designed to allow members to make less statistically justified decisions. It simply muddies the waters.
At the end of the day, WADA is likely to accept it because there’s not much of a choice. Testing for tDCS is crazy hard. If records start to fall, the sportocrats will look up from their performance-enhancing morning coffees, but before that happens expect the policy to involve quite a lot of looking the other way.
Photos via Dustin Gaffke / Flickr