It started In early October, when 108 stroke patients appeared for a bizarre clinical trial with significant arm and hand disability. The researchers will surgically implant a neurostimulator into their vagus nerve, the cranial nerve running along the front groove of the neck and responsible for transmitting signals from the brain to other parts of the body. By the time the trial was over, the tenants’ once-limited organs had begun to return to life. Somehow, those nerve pulses with rehabilitation therapy have given patients improved use of their disabled limbs – and have done it faster and more effectively than any treatment before, even on those who have not responded to anything else.
This spring, the results of the trial were published The Lancet. The opposite of paralysis, in itself, is a wonderful achievement. But embedding in the article was something more basic. It wasn’t What Patients have learned, however How They learned this: by stimulating the vagus nerve, they contracted a few months of years of physical therapy. The trial was meant to be a way to repair damage and restore motor control. But what if there was no harm in the beginning? In healthy and fit hands, this type of technology can significantly increase physical performance – the question is whether people are ready to fight it.
The potential application of this technology is not difficult to imagine. Experiments have shown that when the vagus nerve receives extra stimulation, it releases neuromodulators to the brain, which regulate the body’s response. They come online just as the patient is trying to do a new job, strengthening the motor circuits involved. “When you practice golf or something else, it’s the same,” said Charles Liu, chief neurosurgeon and director of research at the USC Neurorehabilitation Center. “There’s not much difference between using a fork for a stroke victim and teaching an elite athlete to hit baseball well.” It is just repetitive action and the development and strengthening of brain-motor circuits. If that process can be made dynamic, then we have just learned how to optimize the brain – and how to improve people. Currently, biotech approaches such as stem cells have shown promise to repair damaged nerves, while brain-machine interfaces aim to replace lost function by bypassing injury and connecting the brain directly to the muscles. But this stroke study revealed that neuromodulation plus task-specific practice increases Hibbian learning-or activity-dependent synaptic plasticity, so that all your muscles are firing sequentially. Typically, to gain a skill, the neurons in the brain have to fire in the right way at the right time; Practice is a common humanistic method, but now, stimulation allows us to do it faster and better.
It is only a matter of time before neuromodulation becomes marketable. Once it becomes scalable and affordable, it can find wide application for the public and especially for athletes who are already interested in optimizing the human body. But in sports, improvements come with regulations, and even excluding the usual controversy over doping, professional competition already has a fair share of their chaos and controversy in this area. For example, the first trans woman to compete in the Olympics, Laurel Hubbard, was eligible to compete in the Tokyo Games only if her total testosterone levels (in serum) were below 10 nanomoles per liter and lasted for at least 12 months. But that same rule disqualified two-time Olympic gold medalist from South Africa, Castor Semenia, because he had an XY chromosome but his testosterone levels had risen.
Neurostimulation promises to make it more complicated. Unlike steroids or hormones, there is no obvious way to monitor this. In a healthy person who uses his entire limb, it is impossible to track whether the stimulation of the vagus nerve has occurred or how long ago. If the athlete has an implanted neurotransmitter, it may be advisable, but not final. After all, the body is releasing its own neuromodulator; Nothing is foreign to the body except electrical stimulation. Even if the Olympic Committee declares the need for control according to testosterone levels, the use of documents from athletes or stimulus providers to measure brain stimulation, or some internal examination of implant devices, will be required. But an athlete’s brain needs to be monitored in one of the last landings of a private space; There must be guidelines with any kind of regulation to protect against abuse. These processes of observation and application must be addressed – and quickly, before technology can surpass our ethics.