Tag Archives: athletes

The joys of an electronic ‘pill’: Could Canadian Olympic athletes’ training be hacked?

Lori Ewing (Canadian Press) in an  August 3, 2018 article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news website, heralds a new technology intended for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (Japan) but being tested now for the 2018 North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC) Track & Field Championships, known as Toronto 2018: Track & Field in the 6ix (Aug. 10-12, 2018) competition.

It’s described as a ‘computerized pill’ that will allow athletes to regulate their body temperature during competition or training workouts, from the August 3, 2018 article,

“We can take someone like Evan [Dunfee, a race walker], have him swallow the little pill, do a full four-hour workout, and then come back and download the whole thing, so we get from data core temperature every 30 seconds through that whole workout,” said Trent Stellingwerff, a sport scientist who works with Canada’s Olympic athletes.

“The two biggest factors of core temperature are obviously the outdoor humidex, heat and humidity, but also exercise intensity.”

Bluetooth technology allows Stellingwerff to gather immediate data with a handheld device — think a tricorder in “Star Trek.” The ingestible device also stores measurements for up to 16 hours when away from the monitor which can be wirelessly transmitted when back in range.

“That pill is going to change the way that we understand how the body responds to heat, because we just get so much information that wasn’t possible before,” Dunfee said. “Swallow a pill, after the race or after the training session, Trent will come up, and just hold the phone [emphasis mine] to your stomach and download all the information. It’s pretty crazy.”

First off, it’s probably not a pill or tablet but a gelcap and it sounds like the device is a wireless biosensor. As Ewing notes, the device collects data and transmits it.

Here’s how the French company, BodyCap, supplying the technology describes their product, from the company’s e-Celsius Performance webpage, (assuming this is the product being used),

Continuous core body temperature measurement

Main applications are:

Risk reduction for people in extreme situations, such as elite athletes. During exercise in a hot environment, thermal stress is amplified by the external temperature and the environment’s humidity. The saturation of the body’s thermoregulation mechanism can quickly cause hyperthermia to levels that may cause nausea, fainting or death.

Performance optimisation for elite athletes.This ingestible pill leaves the user fully mobile. The device keeps a continuous record of temperature during training session, competition and during the recovery phase. The data can then be used to correlate thermoregulation with performances. This enable the development of customised training protocols for each athlete.

e-Celsius Performance® can be used for all sports, including water sports. Its application is best suited to sports that are physically intensive like football, rugby, cycling, long distance running, tennis or those that take place in environments with extreme temperature conditions, like diving or skiing.

e-Celsius Performance®, is a miniaturised ingestible electronic pill that wirelessly transmits a continuous measurement of gastrointestinal temperature. [emphasis mine]

The data are stored on a monitor called e-Viewer Performance®. This device [emphases mine] shows alerts if the measurement is outside the desired range. The activation box is used to turn the pill on from standby mode and connect the e-Celsius Performance pill with the monitor for data collection in either real time or by recovery from the internal memory of e-Celsius Performance®. Each monitor can be used with up to three pills at once to enable extended use.

The monitor’s interface allows the user to download data to a PC/ Mac for storage. The pill is safe, non-invasive and easy to use, leaving the gastric system after one or two days, [emphasis mine] depending on individual transit time.

I found Dunfee’s description mildly confusing but that can be traced to his mention of wireless transmission to a phone. Ewing describes a handheld device which is consistent with the company’s product description. There is no mention of the potential for hacking but I would hope Athletics Canada and BodyCap are keeping up with current concerns over hacking and interference (e.g., Facebook/Cambridge Analytica, Russians and the 2016 US election, Roberto Rocha’s Aug. 3, 2018 article for CBC titled: Data sheds light on how Russian Twitter trolls targeted Canadians, etc.).

Moving on, this type of technology was first featured here in a February 11, 2014 posting (scroll down to the gif where an electronic circuit dissolves in water) and again in a November 23, 2015 posting about wearable and ingestible technologies but this is the first real life application I’ve seen for it.

Coincidentally, an August 2, 2018 Frontiers [Publishing] news release on EurekAlert announced this piece of research (published in June 2018) questioning whether we need this much data and whether these devices work as promoted,

Wearable [and, in the future, ingestible?] devices are increasingly bought to track and measure health and sports performance: [emphasis mine] from the number of steps walked each day to a person’s metabolic efficiency, from the quality of brain function to the quantity of oxygen inhaled while asleep. But the truth is we know very little about how well these sensors and machines work [emphasis mine]– let alone whether they deliver useful information, according to a new review published in Frontiers in Physiology.

“Despite the fact that we live in an era of ‘big data,’ we know surprisingly little about the suitability or effectiveness of these devices,” says lead author Dr Jonathan Peake of the School of Biomedical Sciences and Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia. “Only five percent of these devices have been formally validated.”

The authors reviewed information on devices used both by everyday people desiring to keep track of their physical and psychological health and by athletes training to achieve certain performance levels. [emphases mine] The devices — ranging from so-called wrist trackers to smart garments and body sensors [emphasis mine] designed to track our body’s vital signs and responses to stress and environmental influences — fall into six categories:

  • devices for monitoring hydration status and metabolism
  • devices, garments and mobile applications for monitoring physical and psychological stress
  • wearable devices that provide physical biofeedback (e.g., muscle stimulation, haptic feedback)
  • devices that provide cognitive feedback and training
  • devices and applications for monitoring and promoting sleep
  • devices and applications for evaluating concussion

The authors investigated key issues, such as: what the technology claims to do; whether the technology has been independently validated against some recognized standards; whether the technology is reliable and what, if any, calibration is needed; and finally, whether the item is commercially available or still under development.

The authors say that technology developed for research purposes generally seems to be more credible than devices created purely for commercial reasons.

“What is critical to understand here is that while most of these technologies are not labeled as ‘medical devices’ per se, their very existence, let alone the accompanying marketing, conveys a sensibility that they can be used to measure a standard of health,” says Peake. “There are ethical issues with this assumption that need to be addressed.” [emphases mine]

For example, self-diagnosis based on self-gathered data could be inconsistent with clinical analysis based on a medical professional’s assessment. And just as body mass index charts of the past really only provided general guidelines and didn’t take into account a person’s genetic predisposition or athletic build, today’s technology is similarly limited.

The authors are particularly concerned about those technologies that seek to confirm or correlate whether someone has sustained or recovered from a concussion, whether from sports or military service.

“We have to be very careful here because there is so much variability,” says Peake. “The technology could be quite useful, but it can’t and should never replace assessment by a trained medical professional.”

Speaking generally again now, Peake says it is important to establish whether using wearable devices affects people’s knowledge and attitude about their own health and whether paying such close attention to our bodies could in fact create a harmful obsession with personal health, either for individuals using the devices, or for family members. Still, self-monitoring may reveal undiagnosed health problems, said Peake, although population data is more likely to point to false positives.

“What we do know is that we need to start studying these devices and the trends they are creating,” says Peake. “This is a booming industry.”

In fact, a March 2018 study by P&S Market Research indicates the wearable market is expected to generate $48.2 billion in revenue by 2023. That’s a mere five years into the future.”

The authors highlight a number of areas for investigation in order to develop reasonable consumer policies around this growing industry. These include how rigorously the device/technology has been evaluated and the strength of evidence that the device/technology actually produces the desired outcomes.

“And I’ll add a final question: Is wearing a device that continuously tracks your body’s actions, your brain activity, and your metabolic function — then wirelessly transmits that data to either a cloud-based databank or some other storage — safe, for users? Will it help us improve our health?” asked Peake. “We need to ask these questions and research the answers.”

The authors were not examining ingestible biosensors nor were they examining any issues related to data about core temperatures but it would seem that some of the same issues could apply especially if and when this technology is brought to the consumer market.

Here’s a link to the and a citation for the paper,

Critical Review of Consumer Wearables, Mobile Applications, and Equipment for Providing Biofeedback, Monitoring Stress, and Sleep in Physically Active Populations by Jonathan M. Peake, Graham Kerr, and John P. Sullivan. Front. Physiol., 28 June 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00743

This paper is open access.

Technology, athletics, and the ‘new’ human

There is a tension between Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes as it is felt by some able-bodied athletes that paralympic athletes may have an advantage due to their prosthetics. Roger Pielke Jr. has written a fascinating account of the tensions as a means of asking what it all means. From Pielke Jr.’s Aug. 3, 2016 post on the Guardian Science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

Athletes are humans too, and they sometimes look for a performance improvement through technological enhancements. In my forthcoming book, The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports, I discuss a range of technological augmentations to both people and to sports, and the challenges that they pose for rule making. In humans, such improvements can be the result of surgery to reshape (like laser eye surgery) or strengthen (such as replacing a ligament with a tendon) the body to aid performance, or to add biological or non-biological parts that the individual wasn’t born with.

One well-known case of technological augmentation involved the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who ran in the 2012 Olympic Games on prosthetic “blades” below his knees (during happier days for the athlete who is currently jailed in South Africa for the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp). Years before the London Games Pistorius began to have success on the track running against able-bodied athletes. As a consequence of this success and Pistorius’s interest in competing at the Olympic games, the International Association of Athletics Federations (or IAAF, which oversees elite track and field competitions) introduced a rule in 2007, focused specifically on Pistorius, prohibiting the “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” Under this rule, Pistorius was determined by the IAAF to be ineligible to compete against able-bodied athletes.

Pistorius appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The appeal hinged on answering a metaphysical question—how fast would Pistorius have run had he been born with functioning legs below the knee? In other words, did the blades give him an advantage over other athletes that the hypothetical, able-bodied Oscar Pistorius would not have had? Because there never was an able-bodied Pistorius, the CAS looked to scientists to answer the question.

CAS concluded that the IAAF was in fact fixing the rules to prevent Pistorius from competing and that “at least some IAAF officials had determined that they did not want Mr. Pistorius to be acknowledged as eligible to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events, regardless of the results that properly conducted scientific studies might demonstrate.” CAS determined that it was the responsibility of the IAAF to show “on the balance of probabilities” that Pistorius gained an advantage by running on his blades. CAS concluded that the research commissioned by the IAAF did not show conclusively such an advantage.

As a result, CAS ruled that Pistorius was able to compete in the London Games, where he reached the semifinals of the 400 meters. CAS concluded that resolving such disputes “must be viewed as just one of the challenges of 21st Century life.”

The story does not end with Oscar Pistorius as Pielke, Jr. notes. There has been another challenge, this time by Markus Rehm, a German long-jumper who leaps off a prosthetic leg. Interestingly, the rules have changed since Oscar Pistorius won his case (Note: Links have been removed),

In the Pistorius case, under the rules for inclusion in the Olympic games the burden of proof had been on the IAAF, not the athlete, to demonstrate the presence of an advantage provided by technology.

This precedent was overturned in 2015, when the IAAF quietly introduced a new rule that in such cases reverses the burden of proof. The switch placed the burden of proof on the athlete instead of the governing body. The new rule—which we might call the Rehm Rule, given its timing—states that an athlete with a prosthetic limb (specifically, any “mechanical aid”) cannot participate in IAAF events “unless the athlete can establish on the balance of probabilities that the use of an aid would not provide him with an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such aid.” This new rule effectively slammed the door to participation by Paralympians with prosthetics from participating in Olympic Games.

Even if an athlete might have the resources to enlist researchers to carefully study his or her performance, the IAAF requires the athlete to do something that is very difficult, and often altogether impossible—to prove a negative.

If you have the time, I encourage you to read Pielke Jr.’s piece in its entirety as he notes the secrecy with which the Rehm rule was implemented and the implications for the future. Here’s one last excerpt (Note: A link has been removed),

We may be seeing only the beginning of debates over technological augmentation and sport. Silvia Camporesi, an ethicist at King’s College London, observed: “It is plausible to think that in 50 years, or maybe less, the ‘natural’ able-bodied athletes will just appear anachronistic.” She continues: “As our concept of what is ‘natural’ depends on what we are used to, and evolves with our society and culture, so does our concept of ‘purity’ of sport.”

I have written many times about human augmentation and the possibility that what is now viewed as a ‘normal’ body may one day be viewed as subpar or inferior is not all that farfetched. David Epstein’s 2014 TED talk “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” points out that in addition to sports technology innovations athletes’ bodies have changed considerably since the beginning of the 20th century. He doesn’t discuss body augmentation but it seems increasingly likely not just for athletes but for everyone.

As for athletes and augmentation, Epstein has an Aug. 7, 2016 Scientific American piece published on Salon.com in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,

I knew Eero Mäntyranta had magic blood, but I hadn’t expected to see it in his face. I had tracked him down above the Arctic Circle in Finland where he was — what else? — a reindeer farmer.

He was all red. Not just the crimson sweater with knitted reindeer crossing his belly, but his actual skin. It was cardinal dappled with violet, his nose a bulbous purple plum. In the pictures I’d seen of him in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s — when he’d won three Olympic gold medals in cross-country skiing — he was still white. But now, as an older man, his special blood had turned him red.

Mäntyranta had about 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal man. If Armstrong [Lance Armstrong, cyclist] had as many red blood cells as Mäntyranta, cycling rules would have barred him from even starting a race, unless he could prove it was a natural condition.

During his career, Mäntyranta was accused of doping after his high red blood cell count was discovered. Two decades after he retired, Finnish scientists found his family’s mutation. …

Epstein also covers the Pistorius story, albeit with more detail about the science and controversy of determining whether someone with prosthetics may have an advantage over an able-bodied athlete. Scientists don’t agree about whether or not there is an advantage.

I have many other posts on the topic of augmentation. You can find them under the Human Enhancement category and you can also try the tag, machine/flesh.

A tattoo that’s a biobattery and a sensor?

It’s going to be an American Chemical Society (ACS) 248th meeting kind of week as yet another interesting piece of scientific research is bruited (spread) about the internet. This time it’s all about sweat, exercise, and biobatteries. From an Aug. 13, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

In the future, working up a sweat by exercising may not only be good for your health, but it could also power your small electronic devices. Researchers will report today that they have designed a sensor in the form of a temporary tattoo that can both monitor a person’s progress during exercise and produce power from their perspiration.

An Aug. 13, 2014 ACS news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the inspiration (as opposed to perspiration) for this technology,

The device works by detecting and responding to lactate, which is naturally present in sweat. “Lactate is a very important indicator of how you are doing during exercise,” says Wenzhao Jia, Ph.D.

In general, the more intense the exercise, the more lactate the body produces. During strenuous physical activity, the body needs to generate more energy, so it activates a process called glycolysis. Glycolysis produces energy and lactate, the latter of which scientists can detect in the blood.

Professional athletes monitor their lactate levels during performance testing as a way to evaluate their fitness and training program. In addition, doctors measure lactate during exercise testing of patients for conditions marked by abnormally high lactate levels, such as heart or lung disease. Currently, lactate testing is inconvenient and intrusive because blood samples must be collected from the person at different times during the exercise regime and then analyzed.

The news release goes on to describe the research process which resulted in a temporary tattoo that could be used to power small scale electronics,

Jia, a postdoctoral student in the lab of Joseph Wang, D.Sc., at the University of California San Diego, and her colleagues developed a faster, easier and more comfortable way to measure lactate during exercise. They imprinted a flexible lactate sensor onto temporary tattoo paper. The sensor contained an enzyme that strips electrons from lactate, generating a weak electrical current. The researchers applied the tattoo to the upper arms of 10 healthy volunteers. Then the team measured the electrical current produced as the volunteers exercised at increasing resistance levels on a stationary bicycle for 30 minutes. In this way, they could continuously monitor sweat lactate levels over time and with changes in exercise intensity.

The team then went a step further, building on these findings to make a sweat-powered biobattery. Batteries produce energy by passing current, in the form of electrons, from an anode to a cathode. In this case, the anode contained the enzyme that removes electrons from lactate, and the cathode contained a molecule that accepts the electrons.

When 15 volunteers wore the tattoo biobatteries while exercising on a stationary bike, they produced different amounts of power. Interestingly, people who were less fit (exercising fewer than once a week) produced more power than those who were moderately fit (exercising one to three times per week). Enthusiasts who worked out more than three times per week produced the least amount of power. The researchers say that this is probably because the less-fit people became fatigued sooner, causing glycolysis to kick in earlier, forming more lactate. The maximum amount of energy produced by a person in the low-fitness group was 70 microWatts per cm2 of skin.

“The current produced is not that high, but we are working on enhancing it so that eventually we could power some small electronic devices,” Jia says. “Right now, we can get a maximum of 70 microWatts per cm2, but our electrodes are only 2 by 3 millimeters in size and generate about 4 microWatts — a bit small to generate enough power to run a watch, for example, which requires at least 10 microWatts. So besides working to get higher power, we also need to leverage electronics to store the generated current and make it sufficient for these requirements.”

Biobatteries offer certain advantages over conventional batteries: They recharge more quickly, use renewable energy sources (in this case, sweat), and are safer because they do not explode or leak toxic chemicals.

“These represent the first examples of epidermal electrochemical biosensing and biofuel cells that could potentially be used for a wide range of future applications,” Wang says.

The ACS has made a video about this work available,

It seems to me this tattoo battery could be used as a self-powered monitoring device in a medical application for heart or lung disease.