Health

Study finds athletes are better at tuning their brain to understand what's going on around them 


Athletes have better-tuned brains that can block out distractions and ‘help them process sounds such as calls from teammates to pass the ball’

  • Study participants had electrodes on their head to measure brain activity
  • Athletes were able to reduce ‘brain noise’ to process external sounds
  • Researchers said this ability makes a person more aware of their surroundings 

Athletes have better-tuned brains that can block distractions and allow them listen to what is going on around them, a study suggests.

Almost one thousands students, including athletes, had electrodes attached to their heads to measure brain activity in response to a sound. 

Student athletes were better able to block background ‘noise’ to hear sounds, which could include calls from a teammate to pass the ball.  

Neuroscientists said this ability may signal a person has a stronger nervous system. It also means they may be more aware of their surroundings. 

Musicians and people who can speak more than one language have also been found to have this skill. It typically deteriorates as we age.

Athletes are better at tuning their brain to understand their environment better by blocking out background noise in their brain, a study suggests

Athletes are better at tuning their brain to understand their environment better by blocking out background noise in their brain, a study suggests

Senior author Dr Nina Kraus, of Northwestern University, said: ‘No one would argue against the fact that sports lead to better physical fitness, but we don’t always think of brain fitness and sports.

‘We’re saying playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one’s sensory environment.

‘A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system.

‘And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.’  

These are the latest results of a five-year, US National Institutes of Health-funded research project which launched last year. 

The study examined the brain health of 495 female and male Northwestern Division 1 college athletes and 493 controls who were the same age.   

HOW IS EXERCISE GOOD FOR THE BRAIN? 

Many scientific studies encourage people to exercise by touting the benefits it could have on their brains – but what exactly does it do?

In a round-up of recent research, Harvard Health Letter’s executive editor, Heidi Godman, explained it can boost the size of certain parts of the brain, improve sleep and stimulate healthier brain cells.

Research by the University of British Colombia showed people who did regular aerobic exercise – such as running, swimming or cycling – have larger and more active hippocampus regions of the brain, which are associated with learning and emotions. 

Other research adds that the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex tend to be larger in people who exercise more often – these regions control thinking and memory. 

Exercise can also reduce inflammation (swelling), which can damage cells if sustained, throughout the body, including in the brain.

It can also stimulate the production of growth factors, which are chemicals affecting the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels to provide more oxygen to the organ.

Exercise also helps people to sleep better and have reduced stress and anxiety, all of which have been shown to have positive effects on brain power and mental health.  

Participants wore earphones to listen to instructions from Dr Kraus and colleagues. Electrodes on the scalp recorded brain activity. 

The team analysed the ratio of background noise to the response to speech. The results were published in the journal Sport Health.

Background noise is also known as static noise. It doesn’t actually make a sound – but may interfere with how we focus on important sounds.

Everyone has a different ability to filter out background noise to listen to important information or concentrate. 

But athletes were generally found to have bigger responses to the sounds than non-athletes.

Dr Kraus and colleagues say they had an enhanced ability to tamp down background electrical noise in their brain.

For example, while playing a game of sports, they have an enhanced ability to listen to their coach on the sidelines or teammates far away. 

People who struggle to tune their brain into noise may have auditory processing disorder (APD), a hearing problem where the brain is unable to process sounds in the normal way.

Dr Kraus said: ‘Think of background electrical noise in the brain like static on the radio.

‘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.’ 

Tuning out brain noise is also seen in musicians and those who can speak more than one language, Dr 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. 

Dr Kraus said: ‘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”.’



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