How to build a better athlete

Why the next generation of cognitive and performance enhancements will put steroids in the shade

Sergey Ponomarev/AP

Last spring, junior-aged hockey players attending the annual NHL Scouting Combine—a festival of prodding and examining intended to help teams make their draft selections—took part in a novel test. Inside a dimly lit, tent-like chamber, each watched through 3D glasses as a swarm of identical yellow balls swirled, surged and faded on a screen before them, straining to keep tabs on “target” balls the system had identified to them before the exercise began.

The idea was to determine which players excel in so-called “multiple moving object tracking” (MMOT)—a prized faculty in high-speed team sports such as hockey, football and rugby. At random intervals, the system would pause and require the players to show where the target balls were, and over time, the animation sped up, increasing the degree of difficulty.

For neurologically gifted players, a chance to strut their stuff on this system, known as a NeuroTracker, meant the chance to get drafted in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks, the team that brought the device to the combine in Toronto. But for others, it represented an opportunity to improve their game. More than a diagnostic instrument, the NeuroTracker serves as a training tool that effectively reprograms an athlete’s brain, establishing abilities that nature never bequeathed. A regimen of 15 five-minute sessions can condition neural circuits to process the chaos of in-game action more efficiently, says Jocelyn Faubert, the Université de Montréal neuropsychologist who designed it, and that frees up brain matter for other functions. The NeuroTracker’s chamber can be customized by sport—hockey players learn to perform their tasks while stickhandling and skating on a treadmill-like surface—and while it doesn’t turn every athlete into an MMOT savant, peer-reviewed studies suggest the program boosts the performance of even weekend warriors. “We’ve seen elite players double the speed with which they can do these things,” says Faubert. “The difference is remarkable.”

Athletes have always pushed their bodies’ physical limits. But as the societal importance of sport grows, and the financial rewards with it, the quest for higher, stronger, faster has ventured into new and uncertain territory. No longer content to build on what the genetic lottery gave them, athletes are increasingly eager to reprogram and redesign themselves down to their molecular building blocks, drawing on a range of scientific advancements that, by comparison, make old-school performance enhancers like anabolic steroids seem downright primitive. At the conventional end of this spectrum are “cognitive training” tools like the NeuroTracker: its calisthenics for the brain are safe, non-invasive and relatively inexpensive. At the other lies the long-feared threat of genetic doping, technology that remains decades off due to recent setbacks in clinical testing.

And in the space between are technologies and procedures close enough to commercial viability that athletes might already be using them. New drugs that block the protein that suppresses muscle growth, for example, are currently being tested to treat muscular dystrophy. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has added them to its list of prohibited substances. Also in the pipeline are so-called HIF stabilizers, which activate genes responsible for producing red blood cells. They’re being developed to treat anemia, but could conceivably boost the performance of athletes in endurance sports such as cycling.

On the surgical front, scientists have made quantum leaps from the 1974 operation in which doctors replaced the damaged left elbow ligament of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John with a tendon from his right forearm. Using 3D printers, a team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine hopes this year to construct an entire muscle-tendon junction, raising the possibility of athletes replacing worn, injured or simply inferior joints with spanking new ones. The scientists’ work could someday extend the careers of stars, and more important, change the fortunes of mere mortals cursed with gimpy knees or elbows.

Paul Zehr, a neuroscience and kinesiology professor at the University of Victoria, says these breakthroughs reflect a paradigm shift in how people relate to their bodies. “The human being is now the technology,” says Zehr, who has written a series of books on human enhancements. “We used to take things like hormones or steroids that changed growth patterns or made us stronger. But they didn’t fundamentally modify our biology. Now we’re at the point where we can tap into the genetic machinery that defines us, and that’s fundamentally different from anything that’s happened in our species until now.”

Different enough that the custodians of fair play are scrambling to keep up. Christiane Ayotte, the long-time director of the anti-doping lab at the INRS-Institut Armand-Frappier in Montreal, points to last winter’s scandal in Australia, where athletes were found to be taking amino acids called peptides that cause the body to release human growth hormone. Human growth hormone taken by direct injection is difficult enough to detect, notes Ayotte; the peptides the Aussies were taking (by skin cream or injection) are metabolized quickly, making them virtually impossible to detect through standard urine testing. “For us in the labs, these new drugs are the real problem,” she says. “This will keep me busy until I retire.”

That’s Ayotte’s way of saying full-on gene doping remains something of a phantom menace. The notion that athletes might some day tamper with their DNA blueprint—literally adding genes to the ones they were born with through injection—has faded amid worrying reports from the frontiers of gene therapy. In the late 1990s, for example, scientists at the University of Chicago began testing a drug called Repoxygen, which can carry into the body genes that trigger the release of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), on baboons. Cyclists and cross-country skiers have for years taken direct injections of EPO, which boosts red-blood-cell counts and therefore endurance. It’s on WADA’s list of banned substances. But if competitors hoped that gene therapy might allow them to produce it naturally, these experiments surely scared them off: the bodies of baboons who received that treatment became so thick with red blood cells that researchers had to bleed them to prevent heart failure and stroke. In another experiment, monkeys given Repoxygen experienced a violent immune reaction. They all had to be euthanized.

Still, the march of research goes on, prompting some soul-searching as to what to do when the hype becomes reality. “What do we want sports to be? What do we want it to represent?” asks Juan Enriquez, a Boston-based venture capitalist in life sciences, and co-author of Homo Evolutis, a 2011 book that explores human change. “Do we want it to be a contest between equals, and try to level the ground so everyone competes on an equal basis? Or do we want it to be a showcase of the most naturally extraordinary, unique and talented individuals?” There are valid cases to be made for both, says Enriquez. But if we opt for the former, Enriquez adds, we necessarily open the door to therapies that close the gap between the genetically blessed and the normal: “I could imagine a time 30 or 40 years down the road when we have a natural Olympics and an enhanced Olympics.”

Andrew Pipe, a Canadian doctor and a pioneer of the anti-doping movement, sees no such necessity. All sports, he notes, are based on arbitrary decisions—dimensions of equipment; the number of players allowed on the field of play—and doping rules are no different. There are already “therapeutic use” exemptions in the WADA code for athletes who require prohibited substances to recover from medical conditions, Pipe adds, but in general, fans accept the possibility that a genetically gifted athlete might run away with the hardware.

With each new advancement, then, the arbiters will be called upon to judge, and it won’t get easier. Enriquez, for one, believes the day is soon coming when fans will be able to pull up on their smartphones the genetic profiles of athletes they’re watching. It won’t tell us who the dopers are. But it will at least provide a clear sense of which competitors won the hereditary lottery before they took up the sport—and which ones have been strapping on the 3D glasses in their bid to keep up.

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