Full disclosure: on a scale of sports-fan tendencies, I am off
the scale in the negative direction. But
my almost complete lack of intrinsic interest in sports makes me a somewhat
dispassionate observer, I hope, of a phenomenon that engages the attention of
billions around the globe, and has its ethical aspects as well. When technology gets in the mix, you have
engineering ethics concerns. And so
that’s why we’re looking today at something called transcranial direct-current
stimulation (tDCS) and its increasing use by both professional and amateur athletes.
The technique of tDCS consists
of connecting two or more electrodes to your skull and sending a small DC
current of a few milliamps through the electrodes, where some of it finds its
way to your brain. Depending on which
part of the brain is stimulated, the effects can range from nothing to the
triggering of an epileptic fit in susceptible individuals. Most of the time, though, the effects are
subtle and have to be documented through elaborate studies.
According to a report in IEEE Spectrum that appeared in 2016, two
young tDCS researchers named Daniel Chao and Brett Wingeier decided to take
what they learned from working at a brain-implant company that sold
anti-epileptic devices, and turn it into some kind of profitable business. They experimented with a non-invasive tDCS
setup instead of an invasive implant, and found that the area of the brain that
seemed to respond most positively to tDCS was the motor cortex, which controls
voluntary movements. They founded a
company called Halo Neuroscience, and for the last year or two the firm has
been selling a product that looks like an odd kind of headphone with foam
spikes pointing inward around the headband.
The spikes are the electrodes, and the Spectrum reporter who tried an early prototype found that using the
device enhanced her performance on a simple motion: curling her biceps on a bicep-curling
The article also raised the
question of whether tDCS would be viewed unfavorably by sports-regulating
commissions such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is the outfit
that tries to police Olympic sports to prevent certain categories of
drug-taking and other activities deemed to be unfair.
The criteria used by the WADA
to decide whether a given technology is allowable are as follows: (1)
Does it have the potential to enhance or enhances sport potential? (2)
Does the substance or practice represent an actual or potential health
risk to the athlete? (3) Is it in the spirit of the sport?
By now, Halo and similar tDCS
firms have been able to show repeatable positive results when athletes train
for their particular sports while wearing tDCS rigs. The devices are not used during an actual competition, because their usefulness consists in
aiding what is sometimes called “muscle memory.” In stimulating the neurons associated with
voluntary movement, tDCS makes it easier to acquire the particular patterns of
nerve behavior that makes optimum use of one’s muscles. Even now the fine details of how tDCS does
this are not entirely clear, but a lack of total understanding of a technology
has never kept entrepreneurs from selling something that works. And although the results are not
spectacular—increases in performance in the 2 to 5 percent range are
typical—these marginal improvements are most valuable to professional athletes
looking for that little extra something.
Of course, if tDCS becomes as
common as Gatorade and everybody uses it, we’ll be right back where we started,
except that the tDCS companies will have a guaranteed market indefinitely into
The second criterion of the
WADA about safety seems not to be much of a concern with tDCS. The technique itself has been studied with
modern techniques for at least forty years, and no one has discovered any
notable ill effects that tDCS has on most people, unless there is some
underlying condition already present such as epilepsy.
So if there is any ethical
objection to tDCS, it would be based on the third criterion, namely that using
it is not in “the spirit of the sport.”
And that’s a rather fuzzy phrase.
There are some things you can
imagine that would enhance performance, wouldn’t be dangerous to the athlete,
but would definitely be contrary to the spirit of the sport. For example, if a shot-putter got into the
ring and brought a carbide cannon with him (a little device that generates
acetylene and then sets it off behind a projectile), and used it to hurl the
shot a couple thousand feet, this would clearly not be in the spirit of the
sport. The point of shot-putting is to
see how far you can throw the thing,
not how far your cannon can throw it.
But once you start banning technological aids, it’s hard to draw the
line, because all technology is the same kind of thing, in one sense. It’s just the degree to which it helps that
It turns out that the WADA has
effectively given tDCS a pass, and its use is spreading among athletes in a
wide variety of sports ranging from swimmers to cyclers and beyond. One practical concern that doesn’t show up
explicitly in the WADA criteria is the question of how easy it is to detect a
given technology’s use. Carrying a
carbide cannon into a shot-put ring is a fairly obvious thing to do. But using a tDCS device only in training and
not on the field is something that would be almost impossible to detect after
the fact, and to detect such use would require continuous supervision by WADA
personnel that the agency simply does not have.
I suspect this near-impossibility of detection played a major role in
the agency’s decision to allow tDCS.
But that doesn’t answer the
question of whether tDCS, or any other advanced technology that makes the body
something else than what it was before, is truly in the spirit of any
sport. The answer to that question
hinges upon one’s philosophy of what sports is all about. Is it just a way that humans entertain
themselves and others, no different in principle than watching a Star Wars movie? Or is it a striving toward an ideal, a direct
assault on the possible using only what you were born with and can acquire
through personal discipline?
Having no discernable interest
in sports myself whatsoever, I’m the wrong person to answer these
questions. But those who care need to
think about what sports is really about before simply accepting advanced
technologies such as tDCS, because one day you may wake up and realize that the
sport you loved has turned into something a lot closer to Star Wars than you may like.
Sources: The article on
Halo Neuroscience’s prototype tDCS headset, “A New Kind of Juice” was written
by Eliza Strickland and appeared on pp. 34-40 of the September 2016 print issue
of IEEE Spectrum. An online version of the article can be found at https://spectrum.ieee.org/biomedical/bionics/olympic-athletes-are-electrifying-their-brains-and-you-can-too. I also referred to articles on tDCS and
sports regulation at https://www.inverse.com/article/19581-transcranial-direct-current-stimulation-sports-performance-enhancing-training
and https://www.vox.com/2018/7/24/17603358/ryan-lochte-doping-ban-olympics-instagram. A news release about Halo equipment being
used for the USA cycling team can be found on the company’s website at https://blog.haloneuro.com/usa-cycling-partners-with-halo-neuroscience-413e7af0e231. I also referred to the Wikipedia article on