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Neuroethics: how “far” can brain stimulation help sport?

Neuroethics: how “far” can brain stimulation help sport? London 2012: Athletics by Daniel Coomber

As a potential enhancement in athletes, brain stimulation raises similar ethical discussions of pharmacological interventions. Is it a “legal” substitute for doping?

Recently brain stimulation has gained interest as a way to improve performance in sports. This of course raises ethical issues  about doping in sport. Remarkably, brain stimulation has a distinctive feature that makes this matter more urgent and controversial. In contrast to most pharmaceutical interventions, at this point in time, it is not possible to identify whether brain stimulation has been used to enhance  cognitive or noncognitive abilities in athletes. While drugs can be easily detected in professional sport through blood and urine samples, this is not the case for brain stimulation interventions.

Interestingly, a study has shown that  brain stimulation can increase muscle endurance and decrease muscle fatigue in normal participants. Undoubtedly, the use of brain stimulation to decrease muscle fatigue by some professional athletes may give them a clear advantage especially in sports that are associated with increased muscular load (cycling, long term running). Moreover, in another study, brain stimulation has been shown to enhance motion perception. It goes without saying that motion perception is a crucial skill required in several sports such as tennis, soccer, basketball.  For instance, if Angelique Kerber would get stimulated the area MT+ (also known as visual area V5), an extrastriate cortical area that mediates motion processing, she might exhibit even better performance and become the first ranked tennis player in the world.

Another crucial aspect in which brain stimulation can help sport is by improving  mental preparation before the game. Typically, sport psychologists are taking care of this aspect. Still, in addition to that, brain stimulation might be used to decrease feelings of stress, which is known to impair athletic performance.

Even though the use of brain stimulation in enhancing athletic performance is only at the begin, sport policy makers should be aware of it and I personally believe that this “controversial” issue will receive considerable attention in the future. 

11 Comments

Tim Schneegans
Posted by Tim Schneegans on February 27, 2016 at 02:26

Of course, brain stimulation as a “substitude” for doping is a critical issue. I personally have two main aspects in my mind:

1. In competitive Sports, every second and little millimeter is important. So it is obvious that if some methods of brain stimulation can enhance our performance, they seem useful for the athlete. However, you have to think about the relevance of these effects compared to other psychological techniques. Our brain areas are influenced by every sensation and I guess that a strong motivated attitiude has a greater impact than some neuronal enhancement.

2. But no one can disclame that there is a potential for improving and establishing brain stimulation. This possible “substitude” placed between biochemical doping and natural and legal methodes reveals the flowing boundaries between “true” and “false” performance. I think, if we assume that “true” physical performance, has to belong solely to the doping free hardly trained body then the “true” mental performance of an athlete has to depend solely on his own experiences and will without any external stimulation using electric waves.

Although it should not be allowed in competitive sports, improving the individual performance through brain stimulation has a great potential, not only in medical research. It also will receive attention in sports even if it becomes illegal.

Romy Alea Raab
Posted by Romy Alea Raab on February 26, 2016 at 23:15

Although there certainly is reason to see brain stimulation as a form of doping as it can enhance an athlete’s performance, I personally still see a big difference between doping through brain stimulation and doping with actual drugs that can affect and harm your body in a possibly dangerous way. I have not yet been able to clearly make up my mind about whether to put those to in the same category or not.

Of course there needs to be a lot more research, especially on long-term-effects, to ensure safety in the use of this method. However, I think there are other areas in which brain stimulation would be of greater use than in competitive sports. Here, as mentioned before, the willpower and hard training of an athlete should be rewarded and not the fact that he had the opportunity to use a method that enhances his perfomance (that others might not have) which is not related to training (mentally and physically).

Besides, brain stimulation might not be relevant or helpful in every discipline, so in my opinion, putting a general stamp on the term does not seem right to me. Brain stimulation might have a different use in different disciplines and each discipline might want to determine whether to consider it a legitimate help to training or to view it as actual doping.

Although this topic certainly is very controversial, I would actually be really interested in seeing how much unknown potential can be made visible via brain stimulation.

Maximilian Morgenstern
Posted by Maximilian Morgenstern on February 26, 2016 at 18:29

To me there are two main pinots to discuss about the article above.
First of all it has to be considered where this “performance-enhancing” is coming from.
As already mentioned below there are several reasons why sportsman use products or methods to increase their performance. Agreeing with the argument that almost every professional sportsman no matter what kind of sport he or she does is forced in a softly way to accomplish better results from season to season, I would like to have a closer look at the social factors causing people to use any kind of doping. Social comparison for sure is one of the main source leading humans to be better than other. Basically you can find this in almost every social interaction. Children are in the same way affected than adults, sportsman or any other kind of person. Some students use pharmacological substitutes to increase their cognitive performance to get better grades, other people go at a gym not only to work out rather to have a good look. Without value it can be seen as a “normal” process that people consequently trying to enhance their performance. And for sure sponsors, event promoters and mass media are encouraging this.
The second aspect to discuss is the moral and ethical reason to use this method especially in a classic competition situation. For me sport is an important activity in life. The main reason doing sport is to have an increased well-being and spending time with other people sharing the same interests like me. So for me sport can be seen as something what I’m doing just for myself. There is no reason to cheat others because it´s about having a good time rather than being better than anyone else. If Sportsmen are going to use legal or illegal way to enhance their performance they are not only cheating others they are also cheating themselves.

Carolin Eyßer
Posted by Carolin Eyßer on February 26, 2016 at 11:11

First of all, it has to be mentioned how far science has come yet! Brain stimulation is a method of manipulating brain functions, which can lead to an improvement of the human brain functions.
On the one hand, brain stimulation seems very attractive, especially for athletes, as it can not only lead to increased muscle endurance and decreased muscle fatigue but also to an improvement of motion perception. This means a clear advantage in any sports competition and can lead to another limit of athletic skills.
On the other hand, it is not to be viewed that flippantly. To carry it to extremes, that kind of “legal” doping will lead to a blind trust in brain stimulation techniques and a negligence of the skills, which are representative for the whole sport itself. It will also lead to an extreme exaggeration, as athletes will definitely use such a helpful “drug”, which is also impossible to be detected, until the limit. We all know that the sports business is one of the hardest businesses ever. It is clearly unfair for every athlete without such a stimulation, so it will probably result in a concentration only brain stimulation and its effects in sport than the sport discipline itself. Sport competitions live from their fairness, which is the reason why any other drugs are prohibited.
Furthermore, one has to consider the negative effects on health: The negative long-term consequences are still unknown with regards to the destruction of certain brain functions and we still do not know if that stimulation reliably helps at any time with an equal effect. Brain stimulation is also very dangerous referring to a decreased muscle fatigue, as that is a natural signal of the body to show the limits, which is also a life-saving, justified function.
However, there are certain compromises that I consider as relevant and discussable: As brain stimulation can significantly decrease feelings of stress in people, one should expand the use to the clinical field with stress-related disorders, for instance. In this case, brain stimulation can lead to a better life quality. With reference to the improvement of mental preparation in sports, brain stimulation can be an applied technique without any concern, in my opinion. As there are other regularly used techniques before an important game like “lucid dreaming”, which is proven to be an effective method for a successful sports performance.
In conclusion, I consider brain stimulation as a great alternative for any preparation for a sports competition but I would absolutely criticise the use of it during a competition, as it is clearly unfair in a normally fair competition between people who want to compare their rare skills.

Lena Lüneburg
Posted by Lena Lüneburg on February 25, 2016 at 16:15

Although I agree that there is a lot of social pressure on top athletes, any kind of doping should not be tolerated or supported in any way.
Manipulating the brain, which results in better performance levels is just another way of cheating and lying to yourself and others about your personal abilities. Thus, sport loses its essence of achieving your personal best through a lot of practice and a great will.
Moreover, it is just unfair for people who cannot afford it or just don’t want to interfere with their own body’s processes in such a profound way. One of the best things about sports is that everyone is (or at least should be!) equal, irrespective of their social status and that it connects people from different strata. Everyone should also have the same rights and possibilities to get to the top.
Another crucial point that has already been mentioned is safety. I can imagine that there is a reason for a performance maximum and incipent exhaustion after a while of doing sports. Increasing the brain’s potential might have detrimental side effects on the body and the long term effects are not known.
As the popularity of brain hacking rises, people could even start to try brain stimulation on their own, which would of course be very dangerous.
Luckily, some time will pass until brain stimulation will be used for sports. We know now that brain stimulation has significant effects in a laboratory. During sports practices or competitions there are a lot of other variables like stress, often an outdoor environment, other competitors and so on that need to be considered.
All in all, brain stimulation might be a great medical method of treatment but too dangerous and unethical for an everyday use in sports.

Sebastian Dollinger
Posted by Sebastian Dollinger on February 22, 2016 at 21:24

To play the devil’s advocate, I want to express a different point of view.

Professional sportsmen are continuously urged by society to achieve higher performances every season. So doping is in fact a result from mass media and event promoters who demand records from athletes and therefore force them into the usage of pharmaceuticals which are hazardous to their health.
Assuming that brain stimulation methods cause less or no side effects compared to “classical” doping methods, while enhancing performance and reducing injury time to levels the society demands from professional athletes , brain stimulation can be considered as more ethical than common doping methods.
Recent doping scandals for example in cycling, athletics and other sports proof, that athletes will risk their own safety and health in order to sustain pressure to achieve. The withholding of a saver “doping” method would therefore be unethical in my opinion.

Certainly our task as scientists from many different fields is to further study brain stimulation and assure that there are no negative long-term-effects caused by its usage.

Karolin Kibele
Posted by Karolin Kibele on February 20, 2016 at 17:23

This is a very interesting and controversial topic.
In two ways I am impressed by the far-reaching effect that brain stimulation can have.

On the one hand in a positive way. Namely that it can be used as a method to enhance athletes performances and also help them prepare mentally. This way they can bring out their best and in this sense I think it is a very interesting idea to consider.

But on the other hand in a negative way. Namely that the use of it can’t be identified and that athletic competition could become unbalanced without being controllable. Furthermore that, as Carlotta mentioned, addiction could result from the use.
At this point I ask myself if the use of brain stimulation can be prevented at all? As soon as science is so far that it is easily accessible I doubt that brain stimulation will be rejected as an enhancement method in sports.

I agree with the last comments that the use of brain stimulation is to put equal with doping and that it is very important to approach this issue carefully. Furthermore I am convinced that it needs to receive a lot of attention in the future I am curious to see if and which conclusions will follow.

Carlotta Stern
Posted by Carlotta Stern on February 16, 2016 at 17:53

I agree that brainstimulation is a really interesting issue which need to be well discussed.
Like Leandra mentioned brainstimulation has many beneficial aspects taking into account for example the therapy of patients with neurological disease.
But as it was discussed before the problem with brainstimulation as a way to improve performance in sports is that it can not be detected in contrast to other drugs that enhance cognitive or noncognitive ability in athletes.
So it is just not fair for the athletes who do not take advantage of brainstimulation. Sure it could be argued that everybody could use brainstimulation to enhance his or her performance, but in my opinion the meaning of high- performance sports could get lost through that. From my point of view high-performance sports is characterized by hard and intensive work for the personal goals and not passive improvement of performance through brainstimulation.
Speaking for my self as an athlete, the thought that my athletic idol uses brainstimulation to deliver his/her performance demotivates me and might demotivate other athletes in lower performance classes.
Moreover, I want to consider another problematic aspect. There is a risk that brainstimulation might result in addiction like other pharmaceutical interventions and effect the physical and mental health e.g. leading to a feeling of dependence.
In conclusion, I completely agree that the issue has to receive more attention in the future especially in the sport context.

Sophia von Münchhausen
Posted by Sophia von Münchhausen on February 15, 2016 at 21:25

I think this is a very interestin issue that will raise a lot of critics to argue about the topic if it would be legal or not to dope your performance with brain stimulation. Because, in my opinion, the most interesting fact about this it that it cannot be proven if somebody has been using brain stimulation. This reaches a hole new level of the possibilities to push the athlets’ performances to a level that has not existed before.
I agree with Leandras comment below that we might not seek the best athlet but rather the one who has the best brain stimulation.

But this issue might as well raise the question is brain stimulation is just a new way to use the development of technologies to exceed prior human limits. In my opinion, cheating defined by the fact that not every body has the same chances. But maybe, in a few years, brain stimulation will not be unusual anymore and it will be available for every athlet to increace their performance truly. If all athlets had the option to use brain stimulation, one could not call it cheating anymore.
Though, this argument is followed by the condition that science needs more research on brain stimulation and it’s effects on athlets if they are using it frequently. Possibly there might not only be positive aspects about brain stimulation; perhaps it has impacts on other functions of the neuronal system that no one knows of yet.

All in all, cheating is an issue if not everyone has the same chances, and before brain stimulation can be used like a normal advantage for professional athlets as the newest shoe technologie, it should be regarded with caution and a lot of research needs to be done.

Tina Bode
Posted by Tina Bode on February 15, 2016 at 13:38

This blog entry points out the enhancement brain stimulation has on components that influence athletic performance such as the increase of muscle endurance, the decrease of muscle fatigue, better perception of motion and less feelings of stress. Given this information every type of competitive sports is addressed because the performance at every type is influenced by at least one of the mentioned components. In my opinion that makes the question whether brain stimulation should be used or not a decision of great significancy. Since the use of brain stimulation is not detectable yet researchers should be working hard on a way to prove it in the case that there is predominantly agreement on illegalising it out of ethical reasons on the part of the decision makers.

I like the idea of brain stimulation as a great opportunity to reveal the true potential of the human brain and the increase of cognitive and physical performance associated with it. But then I dislike the circumstance that the differences in performance between top athletes might be (at least partly) due to the interventions - as doping and brain stimulation - used by them. I prefer those differences rather occur due to features like discipline, talent, strong will etc. than due to the better undetectable methods to increase performance. Besides I wonder whether there are any undesirable side effects of (recklessly) using brain stimulation.

Despite my aforementioned criticism brain stimulation leaves a promising outlook considering the treatment of impaired biological functions because of stress and stress related disorders. From my point of view research to the latter should be definitely pursued further.

Summarising I think brain stimulation can be a huge step towards revealing and using the potential of the human brain but should be considered wisely and used with caution. I totally agree with the much needed usage of brain stimulation to increase someone’s health but I disagree with its utilisation to give someone an advantage over someone else for solely competitive purposes.

Leandra Herder
Posted by Leandra Herder on February 12, 2016 at 12:13

I think that brain stimulation has to be seen very critically. Of course, it´s fascinating what´s all possible today. Basically it´s good that there is the brain stimulation because for example it can be used for rehabilitation of neurological patients with visuomotor disorders. It offers an alternative to other therapies and opens possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. In this case I deem it appropriate and helpful. Furthermore, the use in matters of a mental preparation before a sport game passes of as ethic justifiable. A relaxation can be caused in many ways and the brain stimulation is one of them and doesn´t hurt anybody. It has just an indirect effect on the later performance.

But I can also imagine that there are many athletes for whom brain stimulation represents a really attractive alternative to improve their performance during a game, particularly since it can´t be detected if you made use of it. Then a limit is exceeded, to which I can´t longer consider it as ethic justifiable. Where remains the initial, natural sport performance, which makes the difference between top athletes, when brain stimulation can be used to exceed one’s ‚normal’ physical limits? Whereupon can an excellent performance be traced back? What represents a top athlete then?- The one, who´s the best brain stimulator? In addition to this it is also unfair towards the athletes that didn´t make use of the brain stimulation but count on their own abilities and power without doping.

Additionally, it is a huge problem that this kind of doping can´t be detected like already mentioned. Even if brain stimulation would be prohibited and illegal, the only possibility is to rely on the honesty of the athletes because there can´t be doping controls as it´s usually the case in the sport context.

Thus I consider the brain stimulation basically as a helpful and expedient thing, but just with regards to the intended range of use: in the medical sector including rehabilitation it is definitely a great chance. Maybe even for the mental preparation before a game it can be ethical justified, but not for the improvement of performance during a game and competition. In this context a big problem is the impossibility to detect its use.

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