Athletes use technology to train brain

December 6th, 2010 - By admin in Information on Neurofeedback

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — On the frigid south flank of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, Boulder climber Mark Twight was hunkered down in a wind-rattled tent, preparing for one of the toughest climbs of his career.

He’d trained for months, with sprints up Boulder’s Green Moun­tain, solo speed-climbs up the first Flat­iron, and hours in the weight room. But faced with the daunting task ahead, a 9,000-foot ice and rock route called the Czech Direct, the accom­plished moun­taineer was begin­ning to succumb to stage fright.

It was time to train his brain.

Twight slipped on a set of head­phones and a pair of special goggles, plugged into a Walkman-sized machine and closed his eyes. For the next 45 minutes, he sat in dark­ness as pulsating lights and sounds, frequen­cies set to prompt certain brain wave activ­i­ties, coaxed him into a state more recep­tive to auto­sug­ges­tion.

I reminded myself I had 20 years of expe­ri­ence and could get away with what we were intending to try,” recalls Twight, 39.

Three days later, he’d achieved a record-breaking ascent, climbing in 60 nonstop hours a route done only twice before in no less than seven days.

Phys­ical training for a partic­ular event is the easiest thing to do,” says Twight. “Most athletic fail­ures are rooted in the mind.”

While still in the vast minority, Twight is among a growing number of elite athletes using brain wave training to heighten their perfor­mance.

The new Boulder Center for Perfor­mance and Sport Psychology will open this summer, using neuro­feed­back — a form of biofeed­back in which people train them­selves to control their own brain wave activity — as a training tool.

Already, athletes at the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, the Cana­dian National Olympic Sports Center in Toronto and several Amer­ican univer­si­ties are hooking up to neuro­feed­back machines to train to relax and focus.

A few compa­nies are marketing small, do-it-your­self units like Twight’s which, rather than teaching an athlete to bring himself to a partic­ular brain wave state, use light-emit­ting diodes and select tones to deliver him there.

The idea behind both methods is the more the trip is made to a partic­ular state, the more clear the neuro­log­ical pathway becomes, the easier it is for the athlete to get there on his or her own.

Some skep­tics say the emerging tech­nology is too bulky and too expen­sive. But believers predict control­ling brain waves may someday be as crucial for athletes as eating right and training regu­larly.

Over the years, the athletes have gotten bigger, stronger, faster than ever. The next horizon is the mental edge,” says psychol­o­gist Steve Stock­dale, staff consul­tant for the Boulder Center for Perfor­mance and Sport Psychology.

A 20-year-veteran in the field of neuro­feed­back, Stock­dale has long used the method to help people with atten­tional disor­ders, sleep and anxiety prob­lems.

He recently teamed with Boulder psychi­a­trist Earle Shugerman and ther­a­pist Kerri Honaker to form the Boulder center.

On an initial visit, a client sits in a chair for 30–45 minutes, while 19 sensors measure the surface elec­tricity of his or her brain. The resulting “brain map,” a compli­cated graph of jagged peaks and valleys, is plugged into a data­base and compared with base­line normals. This allows the trainer to iden­tify brain wave read­ings chron­i­cally above or below the norm.

For example, a swimmer easily distracted by the athlete in the next lane may show exces­sive theta brain wave activity, commonly asso­ci­ated with a daydreamy, medi­ta­tive state. A ball player who chokes on game day, over­ridden by anxiety, may show too much beta, the brain wave asso­ci­ated with intense atten­tion.

Once the brain map is analyzed, the client again plugs into the machine and watches his or her brain wave activity, broken into four brain wave states, depicted as colored bars in a graph on screen. The task: to figure out how to change the mental state to move the bars to a specific posi­tion.

For an athlete training for compe­ti­tion, that posi­tion is often a deli­cate balance between intense focus and relax­ation.

An athlete must be able to focus, focus, focus, let go, relax, execute,” says Stock­dale. “It’s a combi­na­tion of being relaxed and focused at the same time.”

Denise Trease, a psychother­a­pist who lives in Reno, Nev., has been there.

For years, the 50-year-old elite skydiver went through the same mental routine every time she prepared to jump from a plane. She’d begin second-guessing herself.

When Trease’s initial brain map showed jagged peaks of theta waves, and low valleys of beta waves, she began training to reverse the trend, hooking herself to a neuro­feed­back machine three days a week for three weeks.

She was shocked by the results.

After the first day, I was driving home and I just felt this little lift,” she recalls.

Today, she no longer has to use a machine to find that zone. It comes auto­mat­i­cally, she says.

Tim Conrad, of the U.S. Olympic Committee, also believes neuro­feed­back is promising. But until prices decrease and the units get more portable, he doubts use will become wide­spread.

Shugerman’s Neurosearch-24, manu­fac­tured by Boulder-based Lexicor Medical Tech­nolo­gies, runs a hefty $13,000, including the brain-mapping soft­ware. A session with a licensed neuro­feed­back prac­ti­tioner with access to such a machine runs about $100 to $125 per session, plus $500 for the map.

Simpler units which plug into a personal computer, such as the Peak Achieve­ment Trainer used at the U.S. Olympic training center, run about $3,000.

And a portable Sport­sLink light and sound machine like Twight’s (not tech­ni­cally a neuro­feed­back machine) costs $295.