Marathon Mind: How Brain Training Could Smash World Records

The title of this post is identical to the title of a feature article by James Witts in the January 30, 2016 “New Scientist” on which this blog post is based.  There are three brain regions that are involved in regulating our tolerance to endurance exercise.  The motor cortex plans and controls movement.  Its communication with the insular cortex intensifies as the runners reach exhaustion.  The insular cortex processes signals from around the body, from muscle pain to emotions, and gives instructions to the motor cortex.  The anterior cingulate cortex is thought to govern perception of effort.  According to one theory, training this region with cognitively challenging but dull tasks can increase endurance.

An exercise physiologist Samuele Marcora asked 35 British soldiers to take a 60-minute cycle trial during which he measured physiological limiters.  Then he split the soldiers into two groups.  Both trained on an indoor bicycle three times a week for 12 weeks, but one group performed a mentally fatiguing task—picking out combinations of letters on a screen—as they pedaled.  Although the control group improved their time to exhaustion by 42%, the brain-training group improved by 126%.  The brain—training group also reported finding the test less painful.  Marcora says “The results showed that the subjects could tolerate a harder perceived effort, so when the cognitive task was removed, the effort felt easier.”

Clearly this astounding result bears replication.  How might this brain-training method work?  Marcora thinks that the answer lies in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which has been implicated in a variety of cognitive and emotional functions.  His belief is that if you systematically stress this brain region with cognitive tasks, you build up resistance.  He proposes that monotonous mental tasks can lead to a build-up of adenosine, which is a brain chemical produced by neurons during prolonged activity (see the healthy memory blog post, “Hunger, Caffeine, Cognition”).  Adenosine accumulates when you are deprived of sleep, finding to adenosine receptors on cells in the brain and elsewhere.  Slowing down the activity of these cells makes us feel mentally fatigued.

Marcora thinks that consistently flooding the brain with adenosine by doing mundane mental tasks forces brain cells to adapt, building resistance to this fatigue—inducing chemical.    Marcora says that “Given that the ACC is likely to be intensely activated during prolonged exercise, the hypothesis is that adenosine builds up in this area, causing changes in perception of effort and self-control.  The result is that your sense of exertion goes down for the same level of actual effort.”

Marcora is not the only endurance researcher convinced that manipulating the brain can bring performance gains.   Kevin Thompson had a group of cyclists undertake a 4-kilometer time trial at personal-best pace.  Then he had them race against an o-screen avatar that they thought was going at their best pace when it was really going 2% faster.  The riders kept up cycling faster than they ever had before.  But when the avatar was set to go 5% faster, the riders could not handle it.  Thompson interpreted this result that the body has an energy reserve of 2 to 5% and suggest that this can be tapped by tricking the brain.

It is amazing what competition supplemented with research in physical and mental training has accomplished.  We don’t know what the limits are with respect to endurance.  I hope that we do not find these limits from the deaths of competitors.  Different individuals have different limits.  This research needs to proceed with care.

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3 Responses to “Marathon Mind: How Brain Training Could Smash World Records”

  1. angelinodesmet Says:

    Thank you. Can’t afford TNS yet.

  2. What kind of sport/exercise do you do? | Page 2 | Physics Forums - The Fusion of Science and Community Says:

    […] (paywall) Summary:…how-brain-training-could-smash-world-records/ Up until a certain point of course. Two weeks ago I planned to run 5km, but the weather was so […]

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