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Endurance Athletes May Soon Be Electrocuting Their Brains

What if, prior to Thursday's Turkey Trot, a few minutes hooked up to a 9-volt battery could have lowered your heart rate, increased your power, and made every mile feel easier? This is the promise of ongoing research on transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS. And while the early test results are far from conclusive and the understanding of what exactly happens is dim, the data is promising.

The first big tDCS trial on endurance athletes took place in Brazil. In the study, published in 2011, a group of competitive cyclists and a group of non-excercisers received either a 30-second zap (the control) or a sustained 20 minutes through two electrodes, one of which was placed over the T3 area of the brain.


Participants reported a "tingling or itching sensation" when the juice was first turned on, but shortly after that they couldn't tell one way or another. The scientists found that the trained athletes who received the full 20 minutes "enhance(ed) parasympathetic and decreas(ed) sympathetic modulation of heart rate." These two halves of the autonomatic nervous system control your heart, lungs, sweat glands, and blood vessels, which all come into play during exercise.

"Hence, releasing a weak electric current to stimulate selected brain areas may induce favorable effects on the autonomic control to the heart," the scientists concluded.

Another study, published last year by the same scientists, went even further, concluding that tDCS gave cyclists increased power, a lowered heart rate, and a lower perceived effort.


Rather than increasing an athlete's base capability, what scientists theorize the voltage is doing is blocking the body's self defense mechanism that acts as a kill switch as it approaches the redline during intense exercise. In effect, tDCS may allow the body to come nearer to the edge instead of stopping at the body's self-preserving railing.

But while research continues at the academic level, Red Bull—it would be Red Bull, wouldn't it?—has pushed forward with experiments on trained endurance athletes. Now in its second year, Project Endurance has begun data collection on tDCS by working with well-known athletes across a variety of disciplines, including triathlon, ultrarunning, and cycling. Pitting athlete against athlete after a blind test, results were mixed: the athlete dosed with voltage didn't always win a head-to-head contest with a non-dosed athlete. In fact, during Outside Magazine's visit, the results were the exact opposite.


While Red Bull hasn't yet published its findings, the potential for tDCS is enticing. Increased performance through a deceptively simple method without the possibility of detection offers a huge payout. Should early tests be further refined and understood, WADA will have to decide if it will allow the athletes and sports it sanctions to utilize it—and if not, then how to test for athletes that will use it anyway.

There are plenty of other areas that doping can advance; gene doping is coming, if it hast happened already. But in the meantime, the research on tDCS continues, and it may change how you look at that 9-volt battery rattling around the junk drawer.


Photo by Kyle Cassidy

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