Health and Wellness

Elite athletes enhance their performance with 'neurofeedback'—and you can get a device for $99

A young woman uses the Muse 2 neurofeedback headband.
Courtesy of Muse.

When you think of the training tools that professional athletes have at their disposal, high-tech sports equipment and state-of-the-art athletic facilities come to mind.

But training for peak performance requires more than just physical fitness, which is why many elite athletes are incorporating brain-boosting treatments called "neurofeedback" into their routine.

Neurofeedback is measuring something that's happening in the body and brain with technology, and using that data to develop a skill or change your performance in something, often via a tangible task like watching a video or listening to an audio recording.

Tobias Harris, for example, forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, uses an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine for neurofeedback for 45 minutes every day when he's on the road, according to ESPN.com.

Tobias Harris #12 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball during a pre-season game against the Orlando Magic on October 13, 2019.
Fernando Medina | National Basketball Association | Getty Images

The EEG sensors attach to his head and read his brain waves as he watches a video — the video will only play if his brain is really concentrating on the content. That repeated practice of concentrating to keep the video playing trains Harris's brain to easily and efficiently return to a focused state, he told ESPN.com, which is important when he's on the court or in a high-pressure situation.

Harris also wears a heart rate and breath monitor before bed. These trackers allow him to slow his breathing and heart rate to calm down after a long day, so it's easier to fall and stay asleep. He told ESPN.com that he sleeps nine hours a night and on off days goes to bed as early as 8:30 p.m. to take advantage of recovery time.

Peak performers, from Olympians to people in the business world who work at Fortune 500 companies, seek out neurofeedback performance modification to improve their energy efficiency and sleep quality, Leah Lagos, a clinical sports psychologist in New York City who specializes in neurofeedback, tells CNBC Make It.

Unlike a basic activity tracker that measures your heart rate, neurofeedback and the associated tasks can be used to "re-calibrate the autonomic nervous system," which regulates involuntary physiologic processes, such as heart rate and blood pressure, says Tim Royer, a neuropsychologist who trains professional athletes and business professionals in neurofeedback. Neurofeedback "re-teaches the nervous system not to over-fire unless it really needs to," Royer says.

"The big thing here is that we're able to train our physiology to turn on and off, and to optimize to be more resilient and adaptive," Lagos says.

For example, a golfer might use neurofeedback to learn how to "turn off" some of the anxious sensations (rapid heart rate, sweaty palms and shortness of breath) that they experience when they're putting. Over time, the brain learns how to acclimate better to stressful conditions, whether that's a basketball game or a work presentation, she says.

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Lagos says that anyone who's trying to get ahead, increase their focus and clarity or optimize their ability to confidently lead under pressure can benefit from the practice, and there are different levels of neurofeedback available for consumers to try.

Some people work one-on-one with a clinician who also provides psychotherapy, for example. But a neurofeedback session can be very pricey (an initial assessment with Royer costs $1,300 to $1,500), and may not be covered by health insurance.

Home consumer devices also allow you to experience some benefits of neurofeedback at a cheaper cost.

Biofeedback device Resperate, for example, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration nearly 20 years ago for reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. It retails for $99.99 and it includes a breathing strap, earbuds and a small machine. Essentially it's a digital breathing coach: The machine guides you to take long, deep breaths in sync with a tone, and monitors your performance.

Resperate was approved by the Food and Drug Administration nearly 20 years ago for reducing stress and lowering blood pressure.

Muse is a more advanced home EEG neurofeedback device and meditation platform that launched in 2014. (Unlike Resperate, Muse is not an FDA-approved medical device and instead adheres to the FDA General Wellness Guidelines for low-risk devices.)

The Muse 2 is a $250 wearable headband that contains seven sensors that measure brain activity, movement, heart rate and breathing rate. It provides real-time feedback as you complete a guided meditation exercise — when your breath slows to a "restful rate," for example, the device will play the sound of birds singing. The idea is that in future sessions, you'll associate the sound of birds with focusing. Muse 2 allows you to track your bodily metrics through the corresponding app.

"There are things you can do that directly influence how your heart is beating, or what brain state you're in," Chris Aimone, co-founder and chief technology officer of Muse, tells CNBC Make It.

Aimone suggests using Muse for about 15 to 20 minutes each day.

He says that the people who seem to have the most success with Muse are people who are goal-oriented and want to get the most out of their wellness routine, such as athletes and executives.

"For those people, having a practice, but also a measurement, is very empowering," Aimone says.

Not everyone is on board with neurofeedback, however. Some experts argue that any results are due to the placebo effect, while others are skeptical of at-home devices that make lofty marketing claims.

"Neurofeedback is a great tool, but it's only as good as the person using it who understands it," Dr. Royer says. He suggests people who are seriously looking to pursue neurofeedback find a practitioner, rather than purchase a device.

Dr. Lagos agrees that home tools may not provide the same degree of benefits as in-person coaching. "Many of these products don't quite offer the personalization that meeting with a person individually does," she says. "But they can be used to still provide some of the benefits."

Additionally, neurofeedback isn't dangerous, according to the Mayo Clinic, but it may not be appropriate for individuals with heart or skin conditions that could mess with the readings.

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