Nav: Home

Play sports for a healthier brain

December 09, 2019

EVANSTON, Ill. --- 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 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. 

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."

The study will be published Dec. 9 in the journal Sports Health.

"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. 

This is the latest study from the neural processing of sound in sports concussions and contact sports partnership, a five-year, National Institutes of Health-funded research collaboration between Brainvolts and Northwestern University Athletics, which launched last year.  The study examined the brain health of 495 female and male Northwestern student athletes and 493 age- and sex-matched control subjects. 

Kraus and her collaborators delivered speech syllables to study participants through earbuds and recorded the brain's activity with scalp electrodes. The team 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 larger responses to sound than non-athletes, the study showed. 

Like athletes, musicians and those who can speak more than one language also have an enhanced ability to hear incoming sound signals, Kraus said. However, musicians' and multilinguals' brains do so by turning up the sound in their brain versus turning down the background noise in their brain. 

"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 said.
-end-
Jennifer Krizman, research assistant professor and Brainvolts member, is the study's first author. Other authors on the study include Tory Lindley, Silvia Bonacina, Danielle Colegrove and Travis White-Schwoch, all of Northwestern. 

Funding for this research was provided by the National Institutes of Health (grant R01-NS102500).  Reporters can contact Kraus directly at nkraus@northwestern.edu

Northwestern University

Related Brain Articles:

Transplanting human nerve cells into a mouse brain reveals how they wire into brain circuits
A team of researchers led by Pierre Vanderhaeghen and Vincent Bonin (VIB-KU Leuven, Université libre de Bruxelles and NERF) showed how human nerve cells can develop at their own pace, and form highly precise connections with the surrounding mouse brain cells.
Brain scans reveal how the human brain compensates when one hemisphere is removed
Researchers studying six adults who had one of their brain hemispheres removed during childhood to reduce epileptic seizures found that the remaining half of the brain formed unusually strong connections between different functional brain networks, which potentially help the body to function as if the brain were intact.
Alcohol byproduct contributes to brain chemistry changes in specific brain regions
Study of mouse models provides clear implications for new targets to treat alcohol use disorder and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.
BRAIN Initiative tool may transform how scientists study brain structure and function
Researchers have developed a high-tech support system that can keep a large mammalian brain from rapidly decomposing in the hours after death, enabling study of certain molecular and cellular functions.
Wiring diagram of the brain provides a clearer picture of brain scan data
In a study published today in the journal BRAIN, neuroscientists led by Michael D.
Blue Brain Project releases first-ever digital 3D brain cell atlas
The Blue Brain Cell Atlas is like ''going from hand-drawn maps to Google Earth'' -- providing previously unavailable information on major cell types, numbers and positions in all 737 brain regions.
Landmark study reveals no benefit to costly and risky brain cooling after brain injury
A landmark study, led by Monash University researchers, has definitively found that the practice of cooling the body and brain in patients who have recently received a severe traumatic brain injury, has no impact on the patient's long-term outcome.
Brain cells called astrocytes have unexpected role in brain 'plasticity'
Researchers from the Salk Institute have shown that astrocytes -- long-overlooked supportive cells in the brain -- help to enable the brain's plasticity, a new role for astrocytes that was not previously known.
Largest brain study of 62,454 scans identifies drivers of brain aging
In the largest known brain imaging study, scientists from Amen Clinics (Costa Mesa, CA), Google, John's Hopkins University, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, San Francisco evaluated 62,454 brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scans of more than 30,000 individuals from 9 months old to 105 years of age to investigate factors that accelerate brain aging.
More Brain News and Brain Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.