Monday, October 5, 2009

That Which Does Not Kill Me Makes Me Stranger - By Daniel Coyle

A big thanks to Miguel at Simoleon Sense for passing this along.

Questions about the muscle-centered model came up again in 1989 when Canadian researchers published the results of an experiment called Operation Everest II, in which athletes did heavy exercise in altitude chambers. The athletes reached exhaustion despite the fact that their lactic-acid concentrations remained comfortably low. Fatigue, it seemed, might be caused by something else.

In 1999, three physiologists from the University of Cape Town Medical School in South Africa took the next step. They worked a group of cyclists to exhaustion during a 62-mile laboratory ride and measured, via electrodes, the percentage of leg muscles they were using at the fatigue limit. If standard theories were true, they reasoned, the body should recruit more muscle fibers as it approached exhaustion — a natural compensation for tired, weakening muscles.

Instead, the researchers observed the opposite result. As the riders approached complete fatigue, the percentage of active muscle fibers decreased, until they were using only about 30 percent. Even as the athletes felt they were giving their all, the reality was that more of their muscles were at rest. Was the brain purposely holding back the body?

‘‘It was as if the brain was playing a trick on the body, to save it,’’ says Timothy Noakes, head of the Cape Town group. ‘‘Which makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. In fatigue, it only feels like we’re going to die. The actual physiological risks that fatigue represents are essentially trivial.’’

From this, Noakes and his colleagues concluded that A.V. Hill had been right about the automatic brake, but wrong about its location. They postulated the existence of what they called a central governor: a neural system that monitors carbohydrate stores, the levels of glucose and oxygen in the blood, the rates of heat gain and loss, and work rates. The governor’s job is to hold our bodies safely back from the brink of collapse by creating painful sensations that we interpret as unendurable muscle fatigue.

Fatigue, the researchers argue, is less an objective event than a subjective emotion — the brain’s clever, self-interested attempt to scare you into stopping. The way past fatigue, then, is to return the favor: to fool the brain by lying to it, distracting it or even provoking it. (That said, mental gamesmanship can never overcome a basic lack of fitness. As Noakes says, the body always holds veto power.)

‘‘Athletes and coaches already do a lot of this instinctively,’’ Noakes says. ‘‘What is a coach, after all, but a technique for overcoming the governor?’’

The governor theory is far from conclusive, but some scientists are focusing on a walnut-size area in the front portion of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This has been linked to a host of core functions, including handling pain, creating emotion and playing a key role in what’s known loosely as willpower. Sir Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, thought the anterior cingulate cortex to be the seat of the soul. In the sports world, perhaps no soul relies on it more than Jure Robic’s.

Some people ‘‘have the ability to reprocess the pain signal,’’ says Daniel Galper, a senior researcher in the psychiatry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. ‘‘It’s not that they don’t feel the pain; they just shift their brain dynamics and alter their perception of reality so the pain matters less. It’s basically a purposeful hallucination.’’

Noakes and his colleagues speculate that the central governor theory holds the potential to explain not just feats of stamina but also their opposite: chronic fatigue syndrome (a malfunctioning, overactive governor, in this view). Moreover, the governor theory makes evolutionary sense. Animals whose brains safeguarded an emergency stash of physical reserves might well have survived at a higher rate than animals that could drain their fuel tanks at will.


Related books: