There have been many headlines in recent years about the potentially negative impacts contact sports can have on athletes’ brains. But a new Northwestern University study shows that, in the absence of injury, athletes across a variety of sports – including football, soccer and hockey – have healthier brains than non-athletes.
“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 senior author professor, Dr. Nina Kraus, the Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory (Brainvolts). “We’re saying that playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment.”
Athletes have an enhanced ability to tamp down background electrical noise in their brain to better process external sounds, such as a teammate yelling a play or a coach calling to them from the sidelines, according to the study of nearly 1,000 participants, including approximately 500 Northwestern Division I athletes.
“A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system,” Dr. Kraus said. “And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.”
The study was published Dec. 9 in the journal Sports Health.Friday Letter Submission, Publish on December 13