Background: 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.

Hypothesis: Given that FFR amplitude is sensitive to experience, with enrichment enhancing FFRs and injury reducing them, we hypothesized that playing sports is a form of enrichment that results in greater FFR amplitude.

Study design: Cross-sectional study.

Level of evidence: Level 3.

Methods: 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.

Results: Athletes have larger responses to sound than nonathletes, driven by a reduction in their level of background neural noise.

Conclusion: 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.

Clinical relevance: These results motivate athletics overall and engagement in athletic interventions for populations that struggle with sensory processing, such as individuals with language disorders. Also, because head injuries can disrupt these same auditory processes, it is important to consider how auditory processing enhancements may offset injury.