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Scanning for muscle ‘talent’

Researchers at the University of Ghent, in Belgium, have come up with a non-invasive muscle scan that can determine what type of athletic endeavours your client is predisposed to! This can be a great help for sports trainers and rehabilitation specialists.

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The carnosine content of the total muscle is closely and positively related to the percentage of fast fibres in that muscle.

In humans, skeletal muscles are composed of fibres that exist in two main categories, slow-twitch (ST or type-I fibres) and fast-twitch (FT or type-II) fibres. Slow fibres can hardly be fatigued, but are characterized by a lower power output.

Fast fibres, however, are able to deliver high power outputs, but are rapidly fatigued. So both types each have their advantages and disadvantages.

It has been shown that all muscles consist of a mixture of fibre types, but not everyone has a muscle fibre type distribution of 50% slow and 50% fast fibres. The muscle fibre type composition in humans follows a Gaussian distribution, meaning that the extremes exist, but are very rare.

Classical research papers from the 1970s established that athletes that are successful in short, explosive exercise types, such as 100-metre sprint, all have a very high portion of fast fibres (70% or more fast fibres), whereas long exercise duration athletes, such as marathon runners, require a high proportion of slow muscle fibres to be highly successful.

Identifying talent

There is an ongoing scientific debate on fibre type transition: whether a fibre of one type can modify into another type in humans in response to training. Yet, there is a consensus that at least a considerable portion of the variation between individuals is genetically determined. Therefore, measurement of the muscle fibre type composition is certainly a valuable tool for sport talent identification.

It may seem surprising that this aspect is not routinely measured in sports practice, but this mainly relates to the lack of a good technique. The reason why this aspect was almost never measured (until now) in sports practice, is because in the past it required a muscle biopsy, which is an invasive, painful and cumbersome technique – and cannot be reproduced easily.

The Muscle Talent Scan is the result of 5 years of research towards an non-invasive alternative. It is a new estimation method based on proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) measurement of the muscle carnosine concentration.

Carnosine is a molecule that is typically present in fast fibres and only to a lesser extent in slow fibres. Therefore, the carnosine content of the total muscle is closely and positively related to the percentage of fast fibres in that muscle.

NMR results of more than 500 individuals of various ages, gender, sports background and athletic skill level have been performed over the past 5 years at Ghent University. These results now form the knowledge base for the Muscle Talent Scan interpretation.

The accuracy of the Muscle Talent Scan has thus far been tested in a number of Belgian elite athletes of various sports, such as track-and-field, triathlon and swimming.

The results illustrate that in elite track-and-field athletes there is hardly any overlap between the athletes of sprint disciplines and those of endurance disciplines with regard to estimated muscle fibre type composition.

Muscle fibre

Before planning a Muscle Talent Scan investigation at Ghent University’s fully equipped, sports-speciality hospital, experts plan ahead in order to set realistic expectations. If appropriate, the Muscle Talent Scan is done with an NMR scanner.

Normally a scan of the calf muscle in a resting position is taken. Scans of other regions (shoulder, knee, etc.) are also possible. The scan takes about 20 minutes, and is fully painless and harmless.

The final report determines an athlete’s muscle fibre type composition, relative to general control and specific elite sport populations; personal orientation within different sports; and practical tips related to future training.

Rehabilitation Centres and medical institutions

Image interpretation with polynomial feature models.

However, pregnant women and people with prostheses or cardiac pacemakers are not allowed in the scanner. It must be remembered that administration of the nutritional supplement ‘beta-alanine’ even three months prior to the measurement will minimize the validity of the results.

Imaging Systems

Ghent University researchers are also working on imaging processing problems. The purpose is to create a real-time vision system, based on image interpretation with polynomial feature models. This makes it possible to analyze human body movement without wearing any markers or sensors on the body.

The greyscale human body images (a) and the segmented images. Many surface segments (b) correspond to meaningful parts of the human body, such as the arms, the legs and the torso. The magenta, cyan and yellow colours correspond to convex, concave and saddle like polynomial surfaces.

The concave polynomial surfaces for the arms, the legs and the torso, and shadowed human body parts are often approximated by convex polynomial surfaces (c). Reconstruction of human body skeletons (d) from the axes of minimum curvature of the polynomial surfaces, approximating the human body, is also possible. The axes of the ellipses representing the segments that match with the skeletons (f), where corresponding line segment pairs are indicated in the same colour.

Researchers at Ghent Uuniversity are engaged in several other projects related to fitness and sports science. The movement analysis laboratory specialises in applied bio-mechanical studies in the field of human motor skills. Projects are conducted in sports (from elite competitive sports to physical activity) and in ergonomics and prevention of injuries.

One such area of its expertise lies in locomotion: running, footwear biomechanics and player-shoe-surface interaction, especially on artificial turf. These are conducted using movement analytic infrastructure and methods such as 3D kinematics and kinetics, EMG, speed-laser and ultrasound measurements.

It is the motor control research group that focuses on sports talent detection and identification. Another area of focus is the use of visual information in sports in which performance is determined (among others) by the decision-making skills of the athlete.

Visual search patterns of athletes are monitored by state-of-the art eye tracking methodology. Comparisons of the visual behaviour of athletes with different levels of expertise are helpful in the selection and development of young athletes for higher competitive sports.

The physiology group has developed expertise in the domain of muscle blood flow, oxygenation and muscle activation with specific applications to sports and clinical settings. The results of these studies in physiological responses of athletes have helped develop general and specific training guidelines for Olympic competitors.

Sports specialisation

There are teams of researchers dedicated to sports nutrition, novel nutritional strategies to influence exercise capacity and skeletal muscle metabolism. The strategies include sport supplements, bioactive foods as well as macro-nutrient interventions that can affect exercise performance in both an elite athletic and general health context.

In the department of rehabilitation sciences and physiotherapy, Ghent University has experience with:

  • Prospective studies on intrinsic risk factors for foot, ankle, knee and shoulder injuries
  • Identification of underlying mechanisms for injuries through clinical interventions in patients
  • Injury prevention programmes in healthy athletes and fitness studio clients
  • Underlying mechanisms in the development of low back and neck pain
  • Studies are also conducted on active and sedentary behaviour and eating habits
  • Psycho-social and environmental determinants of these behaviours.

The university’s team of researchers is also studying five main characteristics in clothing that provide thermo-regulation:

  • Insulation: the garment must have a good insulation value to supplement the air gap on the surface of the skin
  • Moisture permeability: the absorption and retention of water must be as close to zero as possible, and there should be a mechanism to ensure that the moisture is moved away from the skin
  • Wind-proofing and water-proofing, which is more important in cold weather activities
  • Weight: sports clothing must be light and flexible, to offer freedom of movement to its users.

These requirements quite often compete with one another, and the design of sports clothing which can be worn in adverse weather and activity conditions is generally a matter of compromise. However, certain combinations of fabric construction, chemical finishes, design, sizing and assembling techniques can optimize the comfort feeling.

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