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A Bright Future for Sports Neuroscience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The growing field of sports neuroscience examines the poorly studied relationship between our nervous systems and performance in sporting activities. In this Insight, Kamil Celoch, the founder of KC-Performance, discusses the field with Jaime Tartar, professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Nova Southeastern University, Florida. Professor Tartar is also president of the Society for Neurosports. Their discussion touches on how COVID-19 has affected research, studies investigating the relationship between sleep and exercise and the upcoming Society for NeuroSports Annual Conference. 

Kamil Celoch (KC): In one of your recent studies, your research group looked at how exercise timing impacts sleep quality/quantity. Is there a reason to believe that training in vicinity of bedtime may have a detrimental impact on sleep? 

 It is commonly believed that exercise at night would lead to difficulty falling asleep at night. In this study, we had a group of people exercise in the morning or the evening. The time of day that the exercised did not have any impact on any measure of sleep: sleep duration, sleep fragmentation, sleep onset, or sleep efficiency. We used wrist-worn sleep monitors (actigraphy) to objectively measure sleep.

We also carried out three other recent studies:

One shows that in response to a pain stressor (putting one’s hand in ice water for 1 minute). The cortisol responses in males were higher when they had high self-reported anxiety or aggression. This was not the case for women. Psychological variables did not relate to women’s cortisol responses.  These finding give us new insight into the particular importance of psychological variables in stress responses in men.

In another study, we were able to show how a machine learning algorithm can be used to allow a single channel EEG electrode on a wearable headband to discriminate NREM from REM sleep. We are hopeful that this will allow researchers to use this to accurately measure sleep from their research subjects (while the subjects are in the comfort of their own home)!

Finally, we recently published a paper which showed that a biomarker of neurological insult (neurofilament light chain, NfL) is significantly higher in female collegiate soccer players relative to control female athletes. I think female soccer players are understudied in the realm of contact sports and brain health.

KC:  As a neuroscience program director, what were the main challenges you faced when switching to online (or perhaps more accurately, hybrid) learning with your cohort of students? Have you noticed any significant difference in their performance?

 The biggest challenges have been in teaching lab classes online. When all of the students activities were done online, we used “virtual labs”… but it just isn’t the same as dissecting a real sheep brain or the challenges of learning how to accurately pipette 1uL in a PCR lab! Now that we are hybrid, I have the online students watch the other students carry out the experiments, and we strive to keep it as interactive as possible – we want it to be one class. The challenge is to keep the virtual students engaged. I have found it helps to have a second computer open with just their faces showing – I try to address them individually (by name) at regular intervals.  I also think “break out” rooms help. At first, I was resistant to this because I felt that I was not “teaching” (the old sage on the stage), but I learned that they get more out of the interaction with each other.  I have learned to be comfortable shutting up! As a neuroscientist, I am also concerned about the risks for isolation and loneliness, so it is important to allow them time to connect in small groups.  I think the biggest obstacle for me is trying to strike a balance in having compassion for the situation everyone is in, but also ensuring that the learning objectives are being met. 

KC: COVID-19 woes aside, it would seem that the world of sports neuroscience is thriving more than ever. The prolific work of the many members, researchers and practitioners of the Society for NeuroSports group gives us every reason to be hopeful about what 2021 can bring. In fact, the Society will be hosting its 2nd annual conference (both in-person and online) on March 26th and 27th. Could you tell us a bit more about this event?

: Yes! We are excited to be able to offer NeuroSports as a hybrid this year. The in-person event will use masks and social distancing and the entire conference will be available via webinar. We are so excited to be able to bring all of these groups back together. After the first conference, we were able to connect a bunch of researchers across fields – many of them have started working together. It was unfortunate that we lost some of that momentum due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

However, I think now that things are looking better, everyone is excited to restart research programs and reignite some of the research collaborations that they started. Sports Neuroscience is truly an interdisciplinary field – to truly grow this field, we need people to get out of their academic silos and work across disciplines to answer some of the essential questions. For example: questions surrounding brain injury in contact sports, the effect of exercise on brain health and neuroplasticity, how sport nutrition can also influence neural performance and cognitive training for improved performance.

All things considered, the field in advancing very rapidly, especially if we factor in all the force majeure setbacks. Some of the leading voices in this field will feature at NeuroSports 2021 (and I hasten to add that the list is far from exhaustive!):

  • Dr. Allison Brager is studying eSports performance – which is an area of study that has incredible potential for growth.  She brings unparalleled expertise to the society through her experiences as a scientist, athlete and Army major! Dr Brager is leveraging the latest military discoveries in sleep and circadian science to augment eSports performance. Her research ranges from integrating fatigue management strategies to developing a means to select for future soldier populations via neurobehavioral attributes of effective eSports gaming. Dr. Brager will be also a speaker at NeuroSports 2021!
  • Another member, Julius Thomas, brings an exceptional perspective to the field. As a former star NFL player, he truly understands the mindset of a professional athlete. As a graduate student in clinical psychology, he has already co-authored three academic papers in the field of Sports Neuroscience! Julius will be the online host for the NeuroSports 2021 conference.
  • Dr. Tony Ricci holds masters in exercise physiology and nutrition, and a doctorate in sports psychology and motor development. He also trains professional fighters in all disciplines. He brings all this training and knowledge to his work and his collaborations within the field of Sports Neuroscience. Dr. Ricci is holding a workshop on the use of mental skills training in sports at the NeuroSports 2021 conference.

KC: What’s next for your lab?

 In my lab we are moving forward with a collaborative study on sleep and the microbiome.  We previously showed that poor gut microbiome diversity is related to poor sleep, but now we are hoping to demonstrate a causal relationship. We are also wrapping up a study that looks at EEG measures of attention and performance in e-gamers. E-sports is rapidly growing so it will be important to understand the cognitive effects (good or bad) of gaming as well as how to improve performance.   I think these two studies also show just how diverse the field of sports neuroscience can be!