One pro rugby union club has added a new element to their regular workout routine: a brain training app. Players with the Northampton Saints are taking part in a study to explore how playing a so-called "brain training" game could affect their performance on the field, as well as their recovery from head injuries such as concussion.
"The plan really is just to gain a little more insight into the rugby lads we've got here at Northampton Saints, how their brain functions in response to the ins and outs of rugby and what it entails," said Lee Daggett, the team's physiotherapist, who's leading the project.
He approached brain-training app Peak, which is partnering with the Saints and the University of Cambridge on the research.
Brain training apps claim to improve users' cognitive abilities, but quite how effective they are is controversial. Peak claims to "improve your cognitive skills and build healthy training habits with fun but challenging games, goals and workouts," and previous research with the app has suggested that it can improve the cognitive function of people with schizophrenia.
"The ideal outcome would be that we are more enlightened with regard to how the brain responds to head injury or concussion."
This new study sets out to collect information about the potential links between training, cognition, and performance when applied to the specific requirements of an elite rugby team.
Players involved in the study will use the Peak Pro app for a 5-10 minute "workout" every day on club-issued iPads. "It gives them a map of their different strengths and weaknesses with regard to how their cognition and how their brain functions really," said Daggett.
He explained his main interest was using the app to help gain insight into how players are affected by a concussion or bang to the head. The team will record these incidents as part of the study.
Head injuries are common in rugby, and as it's known that concussion can cause cognitive dysfunction, anything that might help monitor players' recovery is another tool in the medical team's arsenal. If it improves cognitive function—and performance on the pitch—that's a bonus.
"Hopefully we'll be able to find that too," said Daggett, but emphasised that player welfare was the number one concern.
"The ideal outcome would be that we are more enlightened with regard to how the brain responds to head injury or concussion, or even sub-concussive episodes on the rugby field," he said. "So we're more informed and more able to treat and to effectively manage a player who's sustained a concussion in the weeks following that."