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Goals Edition, Sports A New Avenue for Enhancing Cognition?

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By: Jocelyn Faubert •  4 years ago •  

How a tool called NeuroTracker could boost your performance

Just another brain trainer?

NeuroTracker is a method for cognitive enhancement that was pioneered at the Visual Psychophysics and Perception Laboratory in Montreal. Professor Faubert, director of the lab and inventor of NeuroTracker explained, “I think this is a very different approach from standard brain-trainer programs. They’re generally modelled on highly specific cognitive tests, whereas Neurotracker evolved out of decades of research into how we can fundamentally improve cognition, and most importantly, in ways that widely transfer to real-life performance.”

Early on, Professor Faubert discovered NeuroTracker could rapidly improve the cognitive functions of healthy older people to levels of young people. Understanding the potential in fields of human performance, he permitted elite Canadian athletes into the lab to train on NeuroTracker, who experienced improvement rates of 53% in speed of processing.

A company called CogniSens was founded in partnership with Professor Faubert’s lab and the technology was immediately adopted by Manchester United F.C., followed by top tier teams in the NFL and the NHL. Len Zaichkowsky, sports science director of the Vancouver Canucks embraced NeuroTracker after the team had spent four years in the middle ranks of the NHL, and witnessed the Canucks dominate the league and reach the finals of the 2011 Stanley Cup. In an interview after that season he commented, “There was almost a 1 to 1 correspondence with those who spent more time training on NeuroTracker and better decision-making on the ice. You can’t provide better evidence than that.”

NeuroTracker spread to a range of Olympic athletes, into the elite Special Forces of the US and Canadian military, to Formula One race teams, and across a diverse range of research institutes around the globe. Now it is being used in all kinds of human performance centres, the first in Australia being the Cairns Sports Performance Clinic, which helped boost the national Kendo team’s results in this year’s world championships.

So what is NeuroTracker?

As a training technique, it really couldn’t be much simpler, look at 8 yellow spheres on screen, remember the four that flash red, and then track them while moving for 8 seconds. Rinse and repeat.

Sounds too simple to be effective? The effects on the brain aren’t. NeuroTracker requires a large 3D screen, typically a 3DTV or head mounted display, now imagine tracking those 4 targets simultaneously at the edges of your field of vision, at different depths, and while they cross-over and collide. Most people find it instantly demanding, and if they don’t the speed quickly adapts to their cognitive limits.

So what’s going on in the brain?

NeuroTracker engages multiple streams of attention, needed to process complex stereoscopic visual motion. This continuously taxes fundamental cognitive resources throughout the brain, including selective and dynamic attention, executive functions and working memory.

Speed is key – NeuroTracker’s ‘secret sauce’ – using scientific algorithms to adapt sphere velocities to each user’s information processing threshold, and keep them there. And it turns out that NeuroTracker speed thresholds correlate strongly to sports ability. One study showed that NBA players’ NeuroTracker results closely matched a range of performance statistics on the court. One reason why NeuroTracker testing has been used to recruit talent potential in the NHL and NFL combines. “In this multiple object tracking task”, Professor Faubert explained, “speed is such a great technique, it allows us to push any person’s cognitive resources to their optimal level of neural stimulation. What’s more is that we can do it precisely, so we get extremely useful metrics.”

Unparalleled Learning

NeuroTracker’s high level mental demands stimulate the brain’s neuroplasticity. Typically two hours of NeuroTracker sessions produces increases of above 50% in speed thresholds, and the effects for most appear to last months or longer. Fascinatingly, the rate at which this improvement takes place seems to reveal crucial aspects of brain adaptivity across different populations. Even though the task is essentially abstract, a large study featured in Nature Scientific Reports established that elite athletes’ brains adapted to NeuroTracker faster than amateurs, who in turn learned faster than university students. “What really blew me away,” Professor Faubert said, “is just how much faster athletes learnt. They have a special intelligence to be able to manage many things when it’s dynamic, fast and difficult to follow, and to cognitively adapt to those demands very quickly.”

Why it matters

Traditional brain trainer programs typically show that people improve at the tasks involved, but limited transfer to real-world skills has generated much scepticism as to their actual usefulness. It seems NeuroTracker is a class apart in this respect.

A 2015 soccer study showed that NeuroTracker training directly improved decision-making and passing accuracy, compared to negligible effects for those who received placebo training. The study pointed out that this transfer to performance is particularly compelling because NeuroTracking is void of context, signifying that the soccer players’ capacities for situational awareness had improved.

Research with healthy older people demonstrated that NeuroTracker training improved biological motion perception, dramatically increasing their ability to read and interpret human body language at close distances. A complex cognitive skill, biological motion perception is known to be a critical skill in most sports, required to anticipate opponents and teammates, and outside of sports, it is key in understanding nuances in social communication.

A military study showed NeuroTracker improved working memory capacity in soldiers. But more interesting is the latest research showing gains in broader intellectual capacities. Led by Brendon Parsons, a practicing neuropsychologist and specialist in neurofeedback, the study put 26 university students through a battery of standardised cognitive tests, both pre and post of 10 sessions of NeuroTracker training. Controls showed no improvement, whereas the NeuroTracker trainees experienced significant gains in key forms of attention (sustained, dynamic, divided, inhibition), working memory, short term working memory, IQ, and information processing speed. Perhaps more convincingly, detailed Quantitative EEG scans were performed at rest, pre and post training, and showed increased brainwave cycles in the executive function regions of the brain, associated with an increased state of alertness and heightened neuroplasticity. The results are particularly intriguing given that college students have above normal intellectual faculties.

The research team compared the effects with other established cognitive interventions in terms of robustness of transfer, longevity, side-effects, ethical issues and potential populations, concluding that NeuroTracker sets the criteria of a gold-standard cognitive enhancer. Parsons is soon to publish a second study to see if NeuroTracker measurably enhances concentration for children and adolescents with ADHD more effectively than other interventions. This follows NeuroTracker trials in US schools showing that K12 students tested with severe ADHD tested post-training, had moved to moderate level ADHD, also supported by subjective reports from teachers of improvements in focus, attention and behaviour in the classroom. This may crossover with sports, as new findings in the US imply that the prevalence of ADHD in professional athletes may be twice that of the general population.

Given the effects, it’s not surprising that there is potential for NeuroTracker’s benefits to transfer widely into human performance fields. Dr. Beauchamp, a sports psychologist who has coached many Canadian Olympians, has used NeuroTracker widely for performance enhancement, stating “Our elite athletes report better reading of game flow, heightened situational awareness, faster decision making, and ultimately more confidence under high pressure play.” And in terms of life-skills, it’s hard to think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from these kinds of benefits.

How far can it go?

NeuroTracker is becoming the go-to tool for a plethora of human performance studies around the world, Professor Faubert remarked, “As a life-long scientist it’s amazing to see this technique blossom into both a powerful research tool and something which can clearly enhance people’s lives in very broad and profound ways. It’s continuously exciting because we know there’s something real here. I think what we’ve seen so far is just the beginning.”

Epitomizing this is on-going NeuroTracker research by leading medical, military and sports scientists into mild traumatic brain injuries, investigating what this technique could reveal about concussions. The first study expected to be published in 2016. The premise is that NeuroTracker reliably elicits mental resources known to be critically affected by concussions, and that this will be seen as changes in NeuroTracker speed thresholds. With the potential to measure concussion severity very sensitively, gradual improvements back to a NeuroTracker baseline could provide valuable indicators of the recovery process, along with return to play readiness. There is even interest in the potential for NeuroTracker stimulation to accelerate the recovery process.

It’s certainly promising to see this application of neuroscience to be used to empower anyone seeking cognitive enhancement. More information can be found at neurotracker.net

Prof. Jocelyn Faubert is a psychophysicist best known for his work in the fields of visual perception, vision of the elderly and neuropsychology. He holds the NSERC-Essilor Industrial Research Chair in Visual Perception and Presbyopia and is the director of the Laboratory of Psychophysics and Visual Perception at the University of Montreal.

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