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.