Participation in team sports not only helps children improve fitness and social skills; it’s also linked with development of the hippocampus region of the brain, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging (2019; doi:10.1016/j.bpsc.2019.01.011). In adults, lower hippocampal volume has been associated with depression for some time.
“We found that involvement in sports, but not non-sports 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,” said lead study author Lisa S. Gortham, a senior majoring in cognitive neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis. The finding was derived from analysis of data from a nationwide sample of children ages 9–11 that included information about depressive symptoms, sports activities and MRI scans of the brain.
Study authors noted that this finding is critical for public policy, because if involvement in sports does change children’s brain development through impact on the hippocampus and related networks, strong incentives exist to encourage children as young as 9–11 to participate regularly in sports activities.
More research is required to understand why girls did not experience the same antidepressant effect.