EVANSTON, Ill. — A great deal of focus these days is placed on the possible harm many athletes may be doing to their brains due to the hard hitting nature of contact sports like football or hockey. While the serious and debilitating nature of CTE-related and concussion injuries are indisputable at this point, an interesting new study conducted at Northwestern University is playing devil’s advocate in the debate surrounding sports and brain health.
Researchers say that as long as an athlete avoids head injuries, their brain is likely healthier than a non-athlete’s. This was found to be the case across a variety of sports, including contact sports like football, soccer, and hockey.
“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,” says senior author Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, in a release. “We’re saying that playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment.”
After analyzing close to 1,000 participants, including roughly 500 (both male and female) college Division I athletes, the study found that athletes develop an enhanced ability to quiet electrical noise in their minds. This makes it easier for athletes to quickly and efficiently process external sounds on hectic playing fields, such as their coach yelling instructions from the bench.
To better illustrate their findings, the research team used the analogy of listening to a DJ on the radio.
“Think of background electrical noise in the brain like static on the radio,” Kraus explains. “There are two ways to hear the DJ better: minimize the static or boost the DJ’s voice. We found that athlete brains minimize the background ‘static’ to hear the ‘DJ’ better.”
“A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system,” Kraus adds. “And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.”
The study’s authors believe their research may prove especially useful for people struggling with auditory processing issues, and recommend instituting sports-based intervention programs for such groups.
For the research portion of the study, participants were given speech syllables via headphones while the researchers recorded each individual’s brain activity using scalp electrodes. Using all of this data, each participant’s brain response, relative to the amount of electrical background noise present, was analyzed. Ultimately, participating athletes were found to have much more pronounced responses to sound than non-athletes and lower levels of background “static.”
Similarly, both musicians and people capable of speaking more than one language have also been found to process incoming sound signals more efficiently. But, according to Kraus, these groups of people appear to achieve this by turning up the sound in their brains, whereas athletes appear to be turning down or quieting the background noise in their minds.
“They all hear the ‘DJ’ better but the musicians hear the ‘DJ’ better because they turn up the ‘DJ,’ whereas athletes can hear the ‘DJ’ better because they can tamp down the ‘static,'” Kraus concludes.
The study is published in the scientific journal Sports Health.