SOUTH AFRICA: Measuring cyclists' brain waves

Researchers at the University of Cape Town have found a way to measure the brain activity of a cyclist pedalling at racing speed by using a specially modified MRI scanner that holds the subject's head still while the legs are rapidly moving.

The project involves the study of the brain during physical activity and opens the possibility of new interventions, according to Dr Elske Schabort, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCT-Medical Research Council research unit for exercise science and sports medicine, known as ESSM.

"Because of the difficulty of the project, technique, equipment and methodology, limited information is available in this area of exercise science research," Schabort said. "The opportunity to be among the first to initiate such novel investigations will allow great progress in our work to try to understand and describe the involvement of the brain and central nervous system during exercise and performance regulation."

The project was initiated by Eduardo Fontes, a doctoral student from the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil. Fontes arrived at the ESSM recently to test a modified scanner bed he and his father had designed. It allows a cyclist to lie flat on the back while being able to pump furiously at a set of pedals connected to a cycling ergometer. The cyclist's head is held stock-still in a helmet fixed to the bed of the scanner. A video showing how the system works can be seen here.

The machine allows researchers to take an MRI scan of the cyclist completing a standard VO2 max, or maximal oxygen consumption, test. This measures the maximum amount of oxygen a person's body can transport and use during a bout of exercise where intensity is gradually increased over time.

Fontes brought his research to UCT after hearing of the work of ESSM Director Professor Tim Noakes on the relation between the brain and sports performance, and how cerebral areas control exercise.

To get cyclists used to the head restraints and the sensation of cycling while supine within the claustrophobic confines of an MRI scanner, Fontes called on the help of Charles Harris, chief technical officer in UCT's department of human biology. Harris constructed a mock-up of the MRI bed and scanner and ensured the final cycling apparatus was "scanner-friendly" such that it contained no metal, for example.

Fontes ran the full tests and scans in April with seven well-trained competitive cyclists. He said it took them a session or two to get used to the unusual set-up of the simulator: "The first impression when they see it is, `Oh man, I won't make this'. But after we improved their comfort - their head and their positioning - they were fine."

The preparatory work with the cyclists on the simulator - including full VO2 max tests - took place at the ESSM facilities at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Newlands, while the MRI scans were done at the Cape Universities Brain Imaging Centre on Stellenbosch University's Tygerberg campus.

Now back in Brazil, Fontes is analysing the data. He and a team of international collaborators at ESSM and UNICAMP will calculate the specific demands of the atypical cycling position and then cross-check that with what they find on the scans. Fontes said the first results should be out early next year, although initial findings suggest the results from the simulator and MRI scans were very evenly matched - confirming the simulator did its job.