The goal behind all the fancy Neurotopia electronics is something the neuroscientists like to call "self-regulation." This is the idea that using basic behavioral conditioning techniques – a positive stimulus for the "right" response, a negative stimulus for the "wrong one" – you can train your brain to influence physiological processes that we normally think are beyond, or below, conscious control: body temperature, heart rate, or, in this case, brain waves, the patterns neurons make when they fire as a group.
The Neurotopia system draws on what the San Luis Obispo, California, start-up company's chief science officer Leslie Sherlin calls a "brain bank." Sherlin is a neuroscientist, who has studied the brain waves of pro-sports teams – the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners, as well as elite, Red Bull-sponsored athletes in individual sports. He's got in his bank about 1,200 brains, that is, their EEG readouts when performing sports-related tasks. This information is fed into the computer to become the gold-standard algorithms that Neurotopia trains clients to approximate when they play the video games. Sherlin and his tech staff hooked up top golfer Rickie Fowler on the putting green as one of their reference brains. As Fowler sank putts, the electric leads attached to his head sent his brain-wave data to the Neurotopia team's three laptops arrayed around the green.
Sherlin found distinct patterns in the way the top pros were able to toggle back and forth between focusing on the task and then, at the moment of truth – in this case Fowler swinging the putter – relaxing into an open mental state. That's a skill that doesn't show up in the brain scans of even a scratch club player. "I don't want to stand on a pedestal and say we've figured it all out," Sherlin says, "because this data is still anecdotal. But definitely, the elite perform differently, even if the nonelite is really good."
If Neurotopia has not yet arrived at the final portrait of the perfect brain orchestrating the perfect putt or home-run swing, the system is good enough to have been embraced by the likes of Nascar racer and all-around motor-sports stud Travis Pastrana, Olympic beach volleyball heroines Kerri Walsh and Misty Mae Trainer, and Mike Bryan, of the Bryan brothers men's doubles tennis juggernaut. And, for his part, Nick Podesta is keen.
During a match, he says, he now finds it easier to maintain his concentration – in Neurotopia-speak, his "focus endurance." If the match isn't going well, if the weather conditions are bad or the line calls are going against him, he taps into another Neurotopia training, "stress recovery," a kind of Zen letting-go empowered by a decrease in "mind chatter." "I'm physically pumped up, running down balls," he says. "But my mind is able to stay relaxed, in the moment. I'm not overthinking."
The future of brain training in sport may take us to stranger places than Sherlin might care to imagine. Over the past few years, Johns Hopkins' Dr. Pablo Celnik has done a handful of landmark studies demonstrating that techniques like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), emerging depression therapies, can also improve the way healthy people learn and retain "motor behaviors." He's currently working with the Air Force to see if brain stimulation can enhance pilots' ability to perform physically in challenging, fast-moving environments. "Someone may be able to practice with a stimulator on their head, and they will perform better," Celnik says. "Then, when the Olympics comes around, he doesn't need to have it on his head anymore. You cannot trace it. So yes, in a way, this would be 21st-century doping."
Longer Chromosomes = Longer Careers
In 2002, Manhattan entrepreneur and anti-aging gadfly Noel Patton purchased the rights to a biological compound some longevity scientists believe is our best shot at extending the span of human life. In 2007, Patton signed up about 100 affluent human guinea pigs who were willing to pay $25,000 for the privilege of taking his untested supplement, TA-65, for a year while having their health closely monitored.
The molecule at the heart of the supplement, isolated and intensively refined from the traditional Chinese herb astragalus, was the only substance that had ever been discovered to enhance, albeit modestly, the body's ability to produce the enzyme telomerase. Telomerase's job is to replenish the tips of our chromosomes, the telomeres, which allow our cells to keep on dividing, which they need to do for the body to keep growing and repairing itself. "Telomerase is what keeps stem cells happy," Dr. Joseph Raffaele, a prominent Manhattan anti-aging doc says. "It allows them to keep dividing and replacing damaged cells in the body."
The paying volunteers weren't sure whether they might live forever (shortening telomeres is one of the drivers of aging and bodily decline), get cancer (telomerase fuels runaway cell growth in cancer), or derive results somewhere in between. In between won out. The scientific consultants to Patton's TA Sciences company, Raffaele and Calvin Harley, one of the world's leading telomere biologists, published a paper that showed a modest improvement in the immune systems of some of the subjects. They are set to publish another one this fall that details some cardiovascular and insulin-system upgrade as well. But many of the subjects reported big lifts – cognitive, sexual, all-around vitality. The athletes who subsequently signed up seemed particularly happy. NFL tight end Dustin Keller was an early adopter who said he went on it to "strengthen my immune system and speed my recovery process throughout the season." The first paying customer, Bill Andrews, a molecular biologist who helped discover the human telomerase gene back in the 1990s, says that three weeks after he began taking the supplement, his ultramarathoning career went through the roof. "I've always been a back-of-the-pack runner," he says, "but I was in a race in Salt Lake City and blowing by runners who've always beaten me."
To date, some 20,000 people have spent upward of $8,000 for a year's supply, purchased through the TA Science's network of health-care providers. (Much of the product is sold online.) High-visibility clients (who don't go on record) include Hollywood producers and one A-list actor esteemed for his ripped physique. And yet, still the best scientific evidence we have about the effects of taking TA-65 comes from mice. A study from a top telomere biologist showed that the supplemented mice better resist the depredations of aging – they process glucose better; their skin and bones are healthier.
What TA-65 might be doing for the Bill Andrewses of the world is open to conjecture. One plausible theory: By goosing the body's ability to generate new immune-system cells, the supplement enhances athletic recovery. Endurance athletes subject themselves to huge amounts of systemic inflammation, and the immune-system reinforcements may allow athletes to resist exhaustion at the cellular level, to continue to perform at a high intensity. It could be driving cell growth in the muscle or the lung tissues. People who exercise tend to have longer telomeres, so maybe taking TA-65 and, it is hoped, slowing down the normal rate of telomere decline, is like getting exercise in a bottle. At this point, nobody knows.