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February 7, 2017

Train the Brain to Win — Sports Brain Science Project

In January 2017, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) launched the Sports Brain Science (SBS) project as part of NTT Group's AI technology corevoTM R&D with the goal of establishing an innovative new training procedure for bringing state of mind and skill fully to bear in sports. In the first phase of the project, having enlisted the cooperation of the University of Tokyo and Keio University baseball clubs, we will highlight the relationship between brain processing characteristics and the performance of athletes with diverse capabilities.

=> Molecular and Bio Science Research Group

Proficiency in sport involves a combination of mind, skill, and physical fitness; all three are important with skill for optimal maneuverability and mind to control one's mental state in addition to a strong and supple physique. However, conventional sports science focuses primarily on understanding mechanisms of the body, while largely ignoring mechanisms of skill and mind. The SBS project takes a different approach. Bringing together NTT Labs long years of brain science research with cutting-edge information-communication technology (ICT), the SBS project seeks to train the brain of athletes to support the mind and the skill to win by probing the implicit functions of the athlete's brain.


Athletes achieve a high level of performance through mastery of a particular brain processing mechanism. Especially in competitive sports and games involving split-second interactions with other players, the implicit information processing of the brain plays a critical role. Baseball is a case in point. The batting motion is performed within less than 0.5 seconds, which is the time between the ball left the hand of the pitcher and it flies over home plate. The batter processes an exceedingly complex sequence of information when he estimates the trajectory of the ball, decides whether or not to swing, and generates the optimum swing trajectory to meet the trajectory of the ball. In most cases, the batter initiates this sequential process before he is even fully aware of the trajectory of the ball, and it is this implicit brain activity that defines the performance of the true athlete. An effective brain science approach for investigating this kind of brain processing mechanism involves precise measurement of physiological signals on the surface of a player's body in mid game using cutting-edge sensing and data analysis technologies, then extrapolates the information processing mechanism that could account for the physiological signals.

In a cross-departmental team initiative, NTT Labs has been conducting basic sports-related research to deduce an individual's mental state using a novel functional material called “hitoe” *1 for measuring physiological signals, a technology for visualizing the characteristics of athletes' body movements and providing intuitive feedback, and so on. In order to zero in on the implicit brain processing mechanism during actual competition, it is essential to obtain an accurate grasp of the physiological signals on the surface of an athlete's body during play. This motivated the official rollout of the SBS project in January 2017 (Project Manager: Dr. Makio Kashino) in close collaboration with athletes and sports teams*2.


Initial Trial

Focusing specifically on baseball/softball where split-second interaction between the pitcher and the batter is critical, the SBS project will shed light on the role of implicit information processing of the brain. Working in collaboration with The University of Tokyo, Baseball Club and Keio University Baseball Club, we launched the first phase of the project highlighting the relationship between brain processing characteristics and the performance of athletes with diverse capabilities. We will also analyze the relationship between physiological signals and performance under various conditions: measurement of biometric data using the smart bullpen*3 and during actual games in addition to conventional brain function measurements done in the lab.

  1. Brain science approach: performance as a function of player characteristics
    We will investigate the relationship between performance and the brain processing characteristics of individual players by making precise biometric measurements of pitcher and batter movements using the smart bullpen measurement environment while at the same time conducting conventional brain function measurements and assessments in the lab. For the brain function assessments, we employ NTT's own proprietary body-mind reading technology*4 that delves deeply into the mental state of subjects based on superficial physiological responses, namely eye movements.
  2. Impact of mental state on performance during play
    By exploiting NTT's biomedical signal sensing technology “hitoe” we can measure player heart rate that cannot otherwise be explained by the amount of player movement. The goal is to shed light on the relationship between a player's mental state inferred from these changes and a player's performance during the game.

Future Development

By continuing to work together with athletes of all levels—junior, amateur, and pro—the objective of the SBS project is to shed light on the implicit brain processing mechanism of athletes. The knowledge gained through this project should help boost the performance of athletes across a wide range of competitive sports¬—baseball, tennis, badminton, martial arts, just to name a few—where split-second interpersonal interaction makes all the difference between winning and losing. And by conducting measurements over longer time frames, these findings will help train athletes by developing their skills, detecting talent at a younger age, and so on. Based on this knowledge, we intend to establish a new training routine that tutors the brain and improves the performance of athletes.

* corevo is a registered trademark of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT).
* This paper was presented at "NTT R&D Forum 2017" held on February 16-17, 2017.


*1 ... “hitoe”
Brand name of a composite conductive fiber material capable of biomedical measurement developed by NTT in collaboration with Toray Industries.

*2 ... SBS Project

*3 ... Smart bullpen
Bullpen designed to concurrently measure the performance, motion, muscle activity, heart rate, and other biometric variables of the pitcher and the batter.

*4 ... Body-mind reading
Technique for estimating brain processing mechanisms from biometric data.