Playing sports has many benefits, including boosting physical, cardiovascular, and mental fitness. We tested whether athletic benefits extend to sensory processing—specifically auditory processing—as measured by the frequency-following response (FFR), a scalp-recorded electrophysiological potential that captures neural activity predominately from the auditory midbrain to complex sounds...We measured FFRs to the speech syllable “da” in 495 student-athletes across 19 Division I teams and 493 age- and sex-matched controls and compared them on 3 measures of FFR amplitude: amplitude of the response, amplitude of the background noise, and the ratio of these 2 measures.
Athletes have larger responses to sound than nonathletes, driven by a reduction in their level of background neural noise...These findings suggest that playing sports increases the gain of an auditory signal by turning down the background noise. This mode of enhancement may be tied to the overall fitness level of athletes and/or the heightened need of an athlete to engage with and respond to auditory stimuli during competition.Such a study cannot distinguish whether being an athlete changed the young people’s brains or whether they succeeded as athletes because they were better at sound processing from the start. Further work might resolve this, as well as determining whether older people can reshape their sound processing by becoming active.