Testing allows a picture of what’s inside an elite athlete’s brain

Electronic packets in what is hoped to be the UK’s first annual test will be given to middle-aged athletes who give a blood sample, so that a brain scan can be compared to what’s been recorded in each’s bloodstream.

An Athlete’s Blood Enhance Brainpower test was developed by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, in partnership with the International Council for Research in Sport (ICRS) and the UK Sport Institute.

The test promises to produce a brain image similar to that expected after a professional athlete – one who has paid close attention to training and nutrition – who performs at a physically and mentally demanding level.

Brain scan correlation between elite athletes and the average person is limited but studies in the US, Sweden and Ireland have shown average citizens come out ahead in many of the measures of performance that athletics clinics use to assess elite athletes, especially those competing at high-profile world, European and Olympic championships.

Ragnar Klavan, right, and Jerome Boateng with Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Gunnarsdóttir during a friendly. Photograph: Philip Brown/Reuters

An Athlete’s Blood Enhance Brainpower test will then compare the findings of both sets of brains to determine whether a set of elite athletes is outperforming the population as a whole.

It has been trialled on nine athletes. However, before the test is given to 500 athletes and a panel of experts, Great Ormond Street and UK Sport Institute Professor Tim Reitz says it will be improved.

Professor Reitz, director of the NIHR sports injury rehabilitation centre, says: “It’s important to get more information about the performance of an Athlete’s Blood Enhancement Brainpower test and refine it further, before we plan to introduce it in community settings.

“To enable everyone’s visual similarity to what is expected to occur in elite athletes after being trained and fed in an insulative environment in a professional environment we need more data from normal, healthy people.”

He says the biggest area of improvement to be made is obtaining a clearer picture of what makes certain people appear to do better.

Among the sample set of participants that have agreed to have a brain scan is Finnish footballer Niklas Moisander, who is coached by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

“There’s so much focus on the training and analysis of athletes and how much detail the doctor in the top club likes to work with,” he said. “But a lot of that is also feeding into how people perceive themselves and what they’re capable of.”

Athletes at the London Athletics Club, which stages training camps for Premier League and England Championship hopefuls, have been training with Reitz and UK Sport Institute Professor Oliver Cruden, who is working on the development of this test, during the course of the year.

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