A new research conducted by scientists from Washington University in St. Louis has linked participation in team sports to larger hippocampal volumes in children and less depression in boys ages 9 to 11.
It further explained that adult depression has long been associated with shrinkage of the hippocampus, a brain region that plays an important role in memory and response to stress.
The study established that contrary to the common belief that non-sport activities such as music or art contribute to greater hippocampal volume, engaging in sporting activities is actually much more effective in achieving this.
Lisa Gorham, who is the lead author of the study and a senior majoring in cognitive neuroscience in Arts & Sciences, said the 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.
According to Deanna Barch, senior author on the study, chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, “The findings raise the intriguing possibility that there is some added benefit of the team or structured component of sports, such as the social interaction or the regularity that these activities provide”.
To conduct the study, the team relied on a nationwide sample of 4,191 children ages 9-11 years from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study. Parents provided information on their children’s participation in sports and other activities and on depressive symptoms. Brain scans of the children provided data on their bilateral hippocampal volume.
While other studies have shown the positive impact of exercise on depression and the link with hippocampal volume in adults, this study is among the first to show that participation in team sports may have similar anti-depressant effects in preteen children.
Additionaly, while the results of the study indicated that there was an association between sports involvement and hippocampal volume in girls, it also showed however that, unlike boys, there is no additional association with depression. This might mean that different factors contribute to depression in girls, or that a stronger association to sports involvement might emerge at a later developmental period for girls.
One of the researchers, Cameron Carter, MD, editor of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis, said of the study, “These interesting results provide important clues as to how exercise benefits mood in children and reveals the important role that gender plays in these effects.”