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Sporting Jitters Offer Insight Into The Human Brain

French neuroscientists are probing the workings of the human brain through the way the world’s top athletes perform under pressure.

Ayrton Senna (Stu Seeger)
Ayrton Senna (Stu Seeger)
Alain Perez

"It's all mental," must be one of the most loved phrases of sports commentators. Every time a skier misses a gate, a goalkeeper gives up three goals in the last 15 minutes, a tennis player double faults on match point, it is always because the athlete could not "cope with the pressure." The main culprit: stress - a sort of inner enemy that completely blocks the neurons at the crucial moment.

"There are two types of stress: the first is positive and gives access to the maximum level of performance; the second is negative and wreaks havoc within the reward circuit," explains André Nieoullon, president of the French Society for Neuroscience.

Top athletes have a particular way to deal with this aspect of their life. "Movements must become a reflex, so that athletes can focus on analyzing the situation, and on how to best manage the environment of the competition, from atmospheric conditions to the other competitors' attitude," says Sébastien Flute, a French archer who won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

How to be psychologically prepared for D-day, and to avoid the famous fear of defeat, is a challenge facing all top athletes, except perhaps certain football players. "Athletes must show their best right away. The time constraint is very important," says Nadine Debois, president of the French Society for Sport Psychology.

"It is impossible to create training conditions that perfectly resemble the real competition," adds Philippe Le Van, physician at the French National Olympic Sports Committee (CNOSF). Having worked with top French athletes for 20 years, Le Van says he knows "a lot of very talented people who have not become champions."

This mechanism is of great interest to all brain specialists. "Athletes are not a species apart, they can teach us a lot," says Jean-François Toussaint, director of the French Institute for Sport Biomedical and Epidemiological Research Institute. "It enables us to study how the brain works in extreme situations," adds Jacques Touchon, president of the science council for the Federation into Brain Research.

Attaining a "state of grace"

A particularly intriguing aspect of this phenomenon is the ability of some sports competitors to attain a level of extreme, almost superhuman, lucidity. In 1988, for example, during a practice session at the Grand Prix of Monaco, the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna gained the pole position by 1.5 seconds from Alain Prost, and by more than two seconds from the rest of his competitors. Questioned about his exceptional performance, Senna evoked a "state of grace": "I had reached the highest level of my ability to concentrate, and of my will to win. It is a feeling that I never found afterwards."

Flute, the archery champion, has also experienced these almost magical moments when he felt that he was "physically guiding the arrow toward the target." He says that "stress and pleasure fuel performance and render the six hours of daily training more bearable." The 39-year-old Brittany-born archer has resumed training and is now preparing himself for the 2012 London Games.

Another aspect which is of great interest to researchers, is the ability to prepare for a challenge through anticipation. "Some skiers visualize their every move on the trail with their eyes closed, just before the race," says André Nieoullon. The way in which sport modifies the formation of cortical maps is another enigma that has long fascinated researchers. "Physical activity favors neurogenesis in the learning part of the brain," says Touchon.

When stimulated, the brain requires about 80 milliseconds to trigger the first signal. Within the following 150 milliseconds, a series of waves sweeps the cortex from back to front. This first wave of information is unconscious. A period of 250 to 300 milliseconds is needed for a clear representation to be produced. "The brain is a slow and rather inhibitory machine," explains Nieoullon. Despite this relative slowness, Formula One drivers manage to reach 250 kilometers-per-hour in certain parts of the Monaco circuit, or 7 meters per every 100 milliseconds.

Growth hormones out, brain drugs in

The research into brain biochemistry has long attracted all kinds of pseudo-doctors who gravitate towards the world of sports. "Some of the molecules developed to treat mental disorders will undoubtedly be used to enhance performance in sports," says Jean-Francois Toussaint. This time, it's not about growth hormones or anabolic products that help to build up the muscle, but finding an edge in the way the mind reacts. Neurochemistry's moment in the sports world has arrived.

The best known example of this kind of psychological doping is Modafinil. Originally created to treat sleep disorders, this "boosting" molecule has a number of fans in the sports world. Solo sailors use it regularly to fight fatigue. Sprinters also use it, but for different reasons: the stimulant drug allows users to isolate themselves from their environment and thus "erase the pressure." The American athlete Kelli White, a specialist in the 100 and 200 meters, admitted that she had become addicted to Modafinil. "It drops reaction time from 160 milliseconds to 130 milliseconds," says Jean-Francois Toussaint. That would be more than enough to win a gold medal.

Read the original article in French

photo - (Stu Seeger)

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