Football in the dark – Incredible athletes 4

At first glance this looks like, for want of a better word, a ‘normal’ game of football. But you cannot fail to notice after only a few seconds in that the players are wearing blindfolds. These players with silky smooth skills and powerfully accurate shots are all visually impaired.

For some of us who play (I feel it would be drastically unfair on the better players on the team to say ‘all’) for the Science Communication football team, we know that possession of skills even half as good as these is beyond our reach. Well, not without many hours of dedicated training. And even then, I know I’d have to spend half my time looking at my feet willing them to do the right thing, and the other half looking about me to prevent disastrous collisions with other players. The simple truth is that these players can’t do that; they coordinate their bodies and their teams through minor adaptations of the game (the ball ‘rattles’ allowing the players to hear its location) and by enhancing other aspects of their physiology to exceptional levels.

During my time working on Channel 4’s ‘Inside Incredibly Athletes’ I got to experience firsthand the discovery of some fascinating neurology in the England team’s captain, Dave Clarke.

Dave suffers from congenital glaucoma; a condition which prevents fluid draining normally from the eyeball. As a result extreme pressures build up within the eyeball itself and crush the optic nerve, preventing the transmission of light-induced messages to the brain. From the age of 6, Dave has been completely blind.

I met Dave on an early summer’s day last year in the garden of the MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences unit in Cambridge. He was accompanied by his gorgeous guide dog, Ned, who I quickly developed a soft spot for. As a result, I quickly volunteered to look after this beautiful black Labrador whilst Dave prepared to enter the MRI scanner, which lay waiting inside one of the buildings.

What we were hoping to test this day was whether Dave’s brain processed sounds in a different way to those who can see; the hypothesis being that many years of specialist training may have altered the brain areas recruited by this blind footballer to locate where sounds were in space, thus allowing him to track the ball and players on the field with unrivalled accuracy.

Although there is no truly defined ‘auditory centre’ in the brain, it can be roughly assumed that areas on the sides of your head (if you put your hand on the sides of your head just above your ears) are involved in processing the impulses which have been generated by the beautifully designed auditory system (oh I wish I could bore you with more details but I am certain you’d never reach the end of this blog!). The area that primarily deals with impulses travelling from the optic nerve on the other hand is found directly at the ‘back’ of the brain.

I had tentatively suggested that areas of brain which would have usually be used by Dave’s brain to construct his visual world, may now be used to help him construct a more refined auditory one. I sat nervously in the waiting room, with an equally anxious Ned (although I’m sure Ned was just anxious to be reunited with Dave!) to find out whether I this was the case. Dave meanwhile was encased within the huge MRI machine, where he was being played sounds which first moved from the left side of acoustic space to the right, and then up and down in pitch.

A few minutes after the scan ended the director, who had been watching the tests from the observation room, came to find me; he wanted me to look at something. Physiology is a fickle thing. There is so much variation; even between people of identical abilities. I was therefore not entirely optimistic that my hypothesis had turned out to be correct.

In fact, to my immense relief and sheer joy, the opposite had turned out to be true. Dr Rhodri Cusack, the researcher carrying out the scans, had apparently been in the middle of explaining how only miniscule parts of additional brain areas might ‘light up’ on the screen indicating they were active in the task, when the entire screen filled with colour.

In essence this meant that when Dave heard the different sounds, his brain lit up like an able bodied person both hearing and seeing! Although we could not guarantee that this was the cause of his unparalleled sound locating abilities; it certainly was a strong contender! I don’t believe Dr Cusack had even seen something like it – Dave’s scans were unique, and provide some invaluable insight into how exceptional the human body can be.

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