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What's the difference between the 40-second rocket burn of adrenaline and the sustained, elevated state of an athletic high, which can seem to last for hours?

Muscle memory is not in the muscles. It’s in the brain. Conventional wisdom wrongly characterizes strength as being solely powered by muscle function. But it’s also neural. “Learning” is accomplished both by improving motor neurons’ timing and through neurogenesis—growing new neural pathways. Consider the athlete who begins weight training; strength improvement occurs in the first two weeks, even though muscle growth isn’t much of a factor until the third week. It’s from brain learning, not muscle growth. Electrical stimulation of the neurons—tDCS—speeds up learning and improves neural drive.

Daniel Chao

CEO of Halo Neuroscience


Research to map and optimize the brain of the individual athlete will become solid enough that sports organizations will turn their attention to the neurology of teamwork. In 20 years, coaches will routinely use neurological data to maximize team efficacy, cohesion and communication.

Do these new techniques—altering the wiring of the brain—violate the spirit of sports? Some scientists compare brain stimulation to carbo-loading ahead of an event.

“It piggybacks on the ability to learn. It’s not introducing something artificial into the body,” says Troy Taylor, high-performance director for the USSA.

Others are more skeptical. If any of these new neurohacks are shown to have long-term health consequences, then they will likely become regulated and increasingly banned. Similarly, if they prove so expensive that only rich athletes can avail themselves of the advantages, then the public and major regulatory bodies are also likely to raise objections.

Dylan Edwards, a neurophysiologist at Burke Medical Research Institute in White Plains, New York, worries that the availability of tDCS devices will tempt athletes to try “brain doping,” in part because there is no way to detect its use. “If this is real,” he says, “then absolutely the Olympics should be concerned about it.”

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