The latest issue of Discover Magazine has a lengthy article from Carl Zimmer that references a lot of the research that we have and will discuss on this site. It’s one of the first mainstream magazine articles to talk about the athletic brain and sport-specific intelligence in a scientific way, and is evidence that this whole idea is beginning to pick up some steam. The article concludes by discussing recent research suggesting that there may be ways to help the brain learn new skills faster, via brain stimulation from an external source, and the ethical implications of such training aids.
In February 2009 Krakauer and Pablo Celnik of Johns Hopkins offered a glimpse of what those interventions might look like. The scientists had volunteers move a cursor horizontally across a screen by pinching a device called a force transducer between thumb and index finger. The harder each subject squeezed, the faster the cursor moved. Each player was asked to move the cursor back and forth between a series of targets, trying to travel the course as quickly as possible without overshooting. The group trained 45 minutes a day for five days. By the end of training, the players were making far fewer errors.
The scientists also trained another group of people on the same game, but with a twist. They put a battery on top of the head of each subject, sending a small current through the surface of the brain toward a group of neurons in the primary motor cortex. The electric stimulation allowed people to learn the game better. By the end of five days of training, the battery-enhanced players could move the cursor faster and make fewer errors than the control group. And the advantage was not fleeting. For three months Krakauer and Celnik had their subjects come back into the lab from time to time to show off their game-playing skills. Everyone got rusty over time, but at the end of the period, the people who had gotten the electrode boost remained superior to the others.
Krakauer and Celnik’s study hints at a whole new world of ethical issues that may lie ahead for sports. Would it be cheating for a tennis player to wear a portable electrode as she practiced her serve? She would, after all, just be hastening the same changes that come with ordinary practice. Today’s controversies over doping in sports focus mainly on muscles. But tomorrow we may have to decide how much athletes should be allowed to take advantage of neuroscience.