With the approach of the Rio Summer Olympics, the role of technology in sport comes naturally to the fore. Many of those questions center on issues of enhancement.
Technology Review notes that some Olympians are using a Transcranial Direct Current Stimulator (TDCS) from Halo Neuroscience as part of their training regime. In a nutshell, TDCS devices consist of electrodes placed on the skull that manipulate the brain by induced electric currents.
Initially investigated as a way of treating illnesses like depression, TDCS is now used as a source of cognitive enhancement by do-it-yourself brain hackers, as well as in some consumer devices.
Enter the Halo Sport. It is incorporated into a set of headphones and promises to improve the effectiveness of athletic training by stimulating the athlete's motor cortex. A number of Olympic athletes are giving it a try.
Evidence for the effectiveness of devices like the Halo Sport are scarce so far. The company claims to have had good experiences and plans to publish rigorous research.
Neuroscientists find adoption of the technology premature. Charlotte Stagg, head of the physiological neuroimaging group in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, points out that existing studies of motor cortex stimulation involve only very simple tasks in a laboratory environment and not athletic feats in competitions. Plus, the long-term effects of use of TDCS are unknown.
High-level athletes, being very competitive, are quite willing to take even serious health risks for even small advantages.
In class, we talk about a dilemma of progress. Should technological innovations be embraced permissively, so that their potential benefits may be fully realized? Or, should innovations be carefully studied as a precaution against any that may prove harmful?
Halo Neuroscience has opted for the permissive approach. It is able to do this, in part, because the Halo Sport is marketed as a recreational device and not a medical one, which would require lengthy and rigorous study.
All things considered, is that approach appropriate?