When a marathon runner approaches the finish line of race but suddenly collapses, it's reasonable to assume it is because of a muscle issue. It might also be a braking mechanism in the brain which swings into effect and makes us people tired to continue. What may be occurring is what is referred to as 'central fatigue'.
Central fatigue is a phenomenon which has been known for about 80 years; it is a sort of tiredness which, instead of affecting the muscles, hits the brain and nervous system. By conducting scientific experiments, it is possible to observe and measure that the brain sends insufficient signals to the muscles to keep going, which in turn means that we are unable to keep performing.
University of Copenhagen Associate Professor Jean-François hopes that mapping the central fatigue mechanism that prompts central fatigue will be useful in several ways. The brain communicates with our muscles using so-called motoneurons. In several diseases, motoneurons are hyperactive. This is true, for example, of people suffering from spasticity and cerebral palsy, who are unable to control their movements. Perrier believes that this new knowledge can also be used to help develop drugs against these symptoms and to find out more about the effects of antidepressants.
"Our discovery is helping to shed light on the paradox which has long been the subject of discussion by researchers. We have always known that the neurotransmitter serotonin is released when you exercise, and indeed, it helps us to keep going. However, the answer to what role the substance plays in relation to the fact that we also feel so exhausted we have to stop has been eluding us for years. We can now see it is actually a surplus of serotonin that triggers a braking mechanism in the brain. In other words, serotonin functions as an accelerator but also as a brake when the strain becomes excessive," says Perrier. This makes the mechanism behind central fatigue an interesting area in the battle against doping, and it is for this reason that Anti Doping Denmark has also helped fund the group's research.
"In combating the use of doping, it is crucial to identify which methods athletes can use to prevent central fatigue and thereby continue to perform beyond what is naturally possible. And the best way of doing so is to understand the underlying mechanism," says Perrier. "This new discovery brings us a step closer to finding ways of controlling serotonin. In other words, whether it will have an activating effect or trigger central fatigue. It is all about selectively activating the receptors which serotonin attaches to.
"For selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs which are used as antidepressants, we can possibly help explain why those who take the drugs often feel more tired and also become slightly clumsier than other people. What we now know can help us develop better drugs."