NeuroSports 2019 Conference Report: Part 2
This post is a follow up of the 2019 Society for NeuroSports Inaugural Conference report.
The Inaugural event was set to take place at the Wyndham Resort in Deerfield Beach, Florida. In lieu of any major changes in tectonic plate arrangement, I decided to temporarily trade the unspectacular mid-November Belgian weather for sunlit Florida in my third transatlantic crossing of the year.
A man's search for... quality
The Society for NeuroSports first registered on my radar when attending the 2019 Annual Conference of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in Las Vegas. The ISSN set the bar extremely high with their Vegas event (full report available here), raising expectations for the Inaugural Conference of their cerebral sister organisation. As a sports neuroscience aficionado, I pricked up my ears as soon as I learnt about the prospect of high quality, credible information source.
Granted, over the past two decades, we have seen flashes of increased interest in cognition in athletic populations, however occasional and scattered they might have been at organisational level. So far, however, no academic society has placed the interplay between brain and athletic performance as the centerpiece of their mission.
This was about to change in November 2019, and if you get a sense that I found this development somewhat exciting, well, then I command your reading comprehension!
While I cannot prove it empirically, I have a hunch that success of any organisation is predicated upon the quality of the people it is comprised of. The Society for NeuroSports, spearheaded by neuroscientist par excellence, Dr Jaime Tartar, is a great example of that.
Dr Tartar is a professor and research director in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Nova South University. Her impressive array of academic credentials includes post-doctoral training at Harvard Medical School in the field of neurobiology of sleep. Commensurate to Dr Tartar’s immaculate track record in the academia is an innumerable list of publications, research projects, conference presentations and academic awards. With two decades of high-flying scientific career (inclusive of working with the US Army), Dr Tartar is quite the assurance of quality and brilliance of mind one would hope to see at the helm of an academic society. Personally, I assure you that she is also the coolest neuroscientist you will ever meet!
Dr Tartar continues to produce some of the most cutting-edge research at the frontiers of DNA-testing and athletic performance, where she blends her expertise of neurophysiology, emotion processing, genotyping and HPA-axis (and I am probably forgetting a good few!).
Dr Tartar is joined in her sports neuroscience efforts by one of the most impactful and accomplished figures in the arena of sports nutrition and exercise physiology, Dr Jose Antonio, Ph.D., FNSCA, FISSN, CSCS. In addition to running the world leading sports nutrition organisation, the International Society for Sports Nutrition, Dr Antonio is a Program Director and Professor in the Health and Human Performance
Other than sparking people’s affinity for best evidence-based practices in the field of human performance as a part of The Master of Science in Sports Science (MSSS) program, Dr Antonio continues to enrich the world of science with important contributions in sports nutrition, body composition, metabolism, exercise physiology and sport supplements for athletic performance. Suffice it to say that if you have read anything worth reading in any of the aforementioned areas, this is the name you will be able to recognise.
Also of NSU fame is Dr Corey Peacock Ph.D., CSCS, CISSN, who as a researcher and associate professor in Department of Health and Human Performance, published work integrating the fields of exercise physiology, athletic performance, and supplementation. With a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from Kent State University, Dr Peacock serves as Performance Consultant of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. When wearing his strength and conditioning hat, Dr Peacock uses his expertise in optimising human physiology to train top-level MMA and UFC fighters, where he consistently delivers outstanding results. In fact, just three days prior to the publication of this article, the current UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, was singing Dr Peacock's praises on the Joe Rogan podcast!
Between eye-popping resumes and jaw-dropping work experience, the eclectic line-up of speakers promised (and delivered!) a mile wide and mile deep educational experience. Here is a a non-exhaustive list of lessons which, in my humble estimation, made the inaugural conference so special :
The depth and breadth of topics discussed:
I am glad to report that in addition to my already challenged suprachiasmatic nucleus, all the presentations challenged my synaptic plasticity! Indeed, the outstanding variety of sport neuroscience related topics stood out as one of the main features of the conference:
- Brain health of combat athletes
- Sleep science for muscle growth
- Cellular and synaptic adaptations to training
- Cognition vis-a-vis Physical Performance
- Creatine and brain health
- Embodied cognition
- Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
But don’t just take my word for it, especially when you can take my video instead!
With creatine, nihil novum sub sole simply doesn’t apply:
The focus of Dr Forbes’ presentation was on the impact of creatine and brain health. The performance enhancing aspect of creatine supplementation in the periphery is well established in the literature, but as time goes by, we learn more about the impact this molecule has on the brain function. PCr levels can be reliably increased in the muscle tissue, but the same cannot be said for the brain where the uptake is limited greatly by the brain blood barrier. Phosphorylated creatine replenishes cellular energy without oxygen, and therefore might exert neuroprotective properties at times of low oxygen availability (such as hypoxia). The protective effect on neurons appears to be mediated by creatine’s ability to donate phosphate groups (secondary) leading to an increase in energy reserve and preservation of ATP (primary). Cerebral hypoxia might lead to impairments on a wide range of cognitive tasks, however we need more data to determine under which conditions and to what extent creatine helps mitigate the damage and loss of function in oxygen deprived subjects. Creatine seems to be capable of improving a wide range of sleep deprivation induced cognitive deficits, and fares fairly well in terms of bolstering executive function, with positive effects also observed on learning, reaction speed and fatigue. Creatine might also exert protective function on dopaminergic function, protecting the neurons from cell death and suppression of toxin- induced dopamine synthesis (possibly mediated via tyrosine hydroxylase and COX2), leading to increased interest in its use in age-related neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, which is characterised by progressive loss of dopaminergic function.
Higher-order thinking lessons: KISS of death and death of KISS
Among many invaluable teachings delivered by Dr Tony Ricci, and one which really resonated with me, was the questionable validity of ‘keeping things simple, stupid’. If you ever tried displaying a HD image on a low-resolution screen, you will know how much of a valuable loss in quality you are getting with a KISS approach: the pixelated granularity and warped edges render the original work barely recognisable. In his open invitation to higher level thinking, Dr Ricci makes a compelling case that overreliance on KISS might well lead to logical fallacies, mental shortcuts and under-nuanced reasoning.
It’s time to dispense with the idea that this type of approach is particularly virtuous and acknowledge its more pernicious side: simply stated, keeping things simple, stupid, is likely to leave you no wiser than you were at the beginning of your thought experiment! And ‘stupid’ is not a particularly redeemable quality (in fact, some have likened stupidity to death: you are no longer aware, but everyone else around you is suffering!). The solution? Be sharp, but even more precisely, Occam’s razor sharp: keep things as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Relentless reader bonus: You can download the latest NeuroSports collaboration of Dr Ricci, Dr Forbes and Dr Candow here: https://www.journalofexerciseandnutrition.com/ManuscriptUploadsPDF/115.pdf
Creatine Supplementation: Practical Strategies and Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts
Intellectually curious environment:
Academic conferences tend to bring together some of the most intellectually curious individuals, and as such lend themselves to stimulating discussions.
I first-hand witnessed Chris Algieri, the current WBO International Super Lightweight Champ, expertly handle the Q&A and fight his way out the corner when faced with an avalanche of questions. Algieri’s world-class boxing footwork clearly extends to being quick on his feet: I was well impressed with his articulate and well-thought out responses on the topic of weight-cutting in fight sports. Equally impressive was Algieri’s partner in crime, Dr Corey Peacock, who weighed in with his experience of working with the UFC fighters and discussed, inter alia, the extent to which dehydration might affect fighter’s performance.
The realities of the NFL locker room with Julius Thomas and Dr Tommy Shavers:
At organisational level, professional sports fall under the ‘entertainment’ category. Becoming ‘pro’ comes with a set of challenges which have little to do with the camaraderie of younger college days. Player’s health, whilst a crucial component of their performance, is subject to ‘adapt or die’ pressures, where an injury can cost the athlete his spot on the team or even an entire career. Due to the nature of the game, the health impact of playing football can be very daunting. Some point out that it is not obvious whether the NFL teams always feel compelled to prioritise players’ wellbeing (especially if that affects their bottom line beyond the expected return on the investment). Indeed, structural changes might be needed to minimise the occurrence of instances when the NFL players and their wellbeing are seen as disposable commodity.
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Stay tuned for part 3, which, by the way, is coming out... soon!