A New Study Shows That Athletes’ Brains Are Tuned for Better Hearing

athlete brain
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Even in perfect silence, if you listen closely, you can still hear a noise. That’s the sound of your brain working, and researchers at Northwestern University are exploring how the brain’s electrical activity affects hearing. According to CNN, the researchers, who are part of a university lab called Brainvolts, have made a fascinating discovery: Compared to non-athletes, both male and female athletes‘ brains are better able to tune out background noise and hear sounds. The team’s findings were published in the journal Sports Health yesterday.

“Elite athletes can better process external sounds, such as a teammate yelling a play or a coach calling to them from the sidelines, by tamping down background electrical noise in their brain,” neurobiologist Nina Kraus, one of the authors of the study, told CNN.

The research is part of a five-year study on concussions, with Northwestern’s Division I athletes (including football, basketball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and other sports) as the research subjects. To understand the new findings, it’s important to know a little bit about how the brain works. External factors—like growing up in an environment with lots of music—affect the base level of electrical “noise” in the brain. The more stimulation in your environment, the lower your brain’s noise will be, and vice versa, Kraus told CNN.

“The brain is hungry for information and it actually creates electrical activity when it doesn’t get enough,” she said. “But it creates random and staticky activity, which in the end is more of a problem because it gets in the way of making sense of sound.“

But if you’re a Division I athlete, you’ll get a hearing boost. At least, that’s what Kraus and her colleagues found. According to the published study, they screened 495 student-athletes across 19 teams and paired them with 493 age- and sex-matched non-athletes for a control group. To assess the how their brains process sound, the Brainvolt team attached electrodes to each person’s scalp and measured electrical activity in response to a single syllable: “da.” Across the board, the athletes showed a much greater reduction in “background neural noise” as a response to the sound. From that, the researchers concluded that athletes are better able to tune out noise and focus on important sounds in their environment.

The findings were consistent across sports and both genders, CNN reports, although it’s possible that differences may emerge along those lines in future studies. Based on the data, an auditory test could be developed to help determine if an athlete has a concussion—and when it’s safe for them to play again. For now, the new data is a key asset in the Brainvolts team’s larger goal of better understanding concussions and how we recover from them.

“Physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system,” Kraus told CNN. “If you have a healthier nervous system and brain, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems.”

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