Subjecting Elite Athletes to Inspiratory Breathing Load Reveals Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Optimal Performers in Extreme Environments

Universidad Europea de Madrid, Spain
PLoS ONE (Impact Factor: 3.23). 02/2012; 7(1):e29394. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029394
Source: PubMed


It is unclear whether and how elite athletes process physiological or psychological challenges differently than healthy comparison subjects. In general, individuals optimize exercise level as it relates to differences between expected and experienced exertion, which can be conceptualized as a body prediction error. The process of computing a body prediction error involves the insular cortex, which is important for interoception, i.e. the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Thus, optimal performance may be related to efficient minimization of the body prediction error. We examined the hypothesis that elite athletes, compared to control subjects, show attenuated insular cortex activation during an aversive interoceptive challenge.
Elite adventure racers (n = 10) and healthy volunteers (n = 11) performed a continuous performance task with varying degrees of a non-hypercapnic breathing load while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. The results indicate that (1) non-hypercapnic inspiratory breathing load is an aversive experience associated with a profound activation of a distributed set of brain areas including bilateral insula, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated; (2) adventure racers relative to comparison subjects show greater accuracy on the continuous performance task during the aversive interoceptive condition; and (3) adventure racers show an attenuated right insula cortex response during and following the aversive interoceptive condition of non-hypercapnic inspiratory breathing load.
These findings support the hypothesis that elite athletes during an aversive interoceptive condition show better performance and an attenuated insular cortex activation during the aversive experience. Interestingly, differential modulation of the right insular cortex has been found previously in elite military personnel and appears to be emerging as an important brain system for optimal performance in extreme environments.

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