“No one would argue against the fact that sports lead to better physically fitness, but we don’t always think of brain fitness and sports,” said Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.
“We’re saying that playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment.”
Professor Kraus’ team examined the brain health of 495 female and male student athletes and 493 age- and sex-matched control subjects.
The researchers delivered speech syllables to study participants through earbuds and recorded the brain’s activity with scalp electrodes.
They analyzed the ratio of background noise to the response to the speech sounds by looking at how big the response to sound was relative to the background noise.
Athletes had an enhanced ability to tamp down background electrical noise.
“A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system,” Professor Kraus said.
Play Sports for a Quieter Brain: Evidence From Division I Collegiate Athletes (Sports Health). From the abstract:
- Background: Playing sports has many benefits, including boosting physical, cardiovascular, and mental fitness. We tested whether athletic benefits extend to sensory processing—specifically auditory processing—as measured by the frequency-following response (FFR), a scalp-recorded electrophysiological potential that captures neural activity predominately from the auditory midbrain to complex sounds.
- Hypothesis: Given that FFR amplitude is sensitive to experience, with enrichment enhancing FFRs and injury reducing them, we hypothesized that playing sports is a form of enrichment that results in greater FFR amplitude.
- Methods: We measured FFRs to the speech syllable “da” in 495 student-athletes across 19 Division I teams and 493 age- and sex-matched controls and compared them on 3 measures of FFR amplitude: amplitude of the response, amplitude of the background noise, and the ratio of these 2 measures.
- Results: Athletes have larger responses to sound than nonathletes, driven by a reduction in their level of background neural noise.
- Conclusion: These findings suggest that playing sports increases the gain of an auditory signal by turning down the background noise. This mode of enhancement may be tied to the overall fitness level of athletes and/or the heightened need of an athlete to engage with and respond to auditory stimuli during competition.
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