A Northwestern University (NU) study showed that in the absence of injury, athletes across a variety of sports, including football, soccer and hockey, have healthier brains than non-athletes.
The study examined the brain health of 495 female and male Northwestern 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 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.
Senior author and NU professor of communication sciences and neurobiology Nina Kraus likens the phenomenon to listening to a DJ on the radio.
“Think of background electrical noise in the brain like static on the radio,” Kraus said. “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 said. “And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.”
The findings could motivate athletic interventions for populations that struggle with auditory processing. In particular, playing sports may offset the excessively noisy brains often found in children from low-income areas, Kraus said.
The study was published on Monday in the journal Sports Health.