Children who participate in team sports may have healthier brains, study finds

ST. LOUIS — Signing your kids up for youth soccer or Little League may benefit more than just their physical health and social skills. A recent study by neurologists at Washington University found that participating in team sports in childhood can improve brain structure, and may also lead to fewer instances of depression in boys as young as nine.

Adult depression has been linked to a decrease in volume of the hippocampus, the portion of the brain that affects memory and prepares the body’s stress responses. Researchers now say that getting children involved in team sports early on may have preventative effects.

“Our findings are important because they help illuminate the relationships between involvement in sports, volume of a particular brain region and depressive symptoms in kids as young as nine,” says lead author Lisa Gorham, a senior majoring in cognitive neuroscience at the university at the time of the research, in a news release. “We found that involvement in sports, but not non-sport activities such as music or art, is related to greater hippocampal volume in both boys and girls, and is related to reduced depression in boys.”

The associations were especially strong for children who participate in sports involving a set structure, such as a school or youth league team, as compared to children who simply play at random with friends or in pickup games. Researchers suggest that the social interaction and the regularity of these team sports provide the most benefits to young players.

The study was based upon the analysis of a nationwide sample of 4,191 children aged nine to 11 from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study. Parents of the children involved provided information on their child’s team sports participation, along with other activities and depressive symptoms. The researchers examined brain scans of the participants to measure their hippocampal volume.

Interestingly, the study found difference in results when it came to gender. Outside of hippocampal volume, there was no additional association to depression risk in girls when it came to playing on a team. The authors believe that could point to a greater variety of factors that impact depression in girls, or that the effect may occur at a later age.

“The fact that these relationships were strongest for team or structured sports suggests that there might be something about the combination of exercise and the social support or structure that comes from being on a team that can be useful at preventing or treating depression in young people,” says Gorham. “The findings raise intriguing possibilities for new work on preventing and treating depression in children.”

The study was published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.

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