The stereotype is that athletes are often less smart than their non-athletic peers and a new paper says it may not be that athletes go into more physical pursuits but that the sports themselves may lead to lower test scores.
Two groups of Dartmouth athletes were studied: 80 football and ice hockey players in the contact sports group, and 79 athletes drawn from such non-contact sports as track, crew and Nordic skiing. The football and hockey players wore helmets equipped with accelerometers, which enabled the researchers to compile the number and severity of impacts to their heads. Players who sustained a concussion during the season were not included in the analysis.
The athletes were administered a form of MRI test known as diffusion tensor imaging, which is used to measure the integrity of the white matter. They were also given the California Verbal Learning Test II, a measure of verbal learning and memory.
The study did not find "large-scale, systematic differences" in the brain scan measures at the end of the season, which the authors found "somewhat reassuring" and consistent with the fact that thousands of individuals have played contact sports for many years without developing progressive neurodegenerative disorders.
However, the results do suggest that some athletes may be more susceptible to repeated head impacts that do not involve concussions, although much more research would be necessary to determine how to identify those athletes.
More work would also be necessary to determine whether the effects of the head impacts are long-lasting or permanent, and whether they are cumulative.
Source: Indiana University