Big-Brained Athletes

I'm a little late posting this one here, but last month I wrote a story for Wired Playbook on how athletes, much like musicians, seem to have brains that are beefier in certain areas.

Instead of just comparing the brains of athletes to non-athletes -- a correlation that wouldn't necessarily show if sports causes the brain to gain mass or if people with a thicker cortex in these areas are more likely to excel in athletic competition in the first place -- the researchers determined how each year of practice correlated to changes in the brain:

However, in one of the brain areas studied, the researchers found that the number of years each athlete competed as a diver nearly predicted how thick the subject’s brain would be. If the results of this small study hold, there may be some biological truth to the adage, “practice makes perfect.” It’s as if each year of sports experience becomes neatly folded as a new layer of neurons atop previously mastered skills, physical knowledge, and competition know-how that have already been crammed into the brain.

I think it's interesting to think about how these findings could impact sports statistics in the future. I mused:

These findings provide a small glimpse of how biometric and neurological data may one day be used to gauge a player’s ability and performance. Granted, there’s still a lot of work to be done in understanding exactly what’s going on in an athlete’s head.

Read the entire story here.

Photo via Flickr / alandberning

Wei, G., Zhang, Y., Jiang, T., & Luo, J. (2011). Increased Cortical Thickness in Sports Experts: A Comparison of Diving Players with the Controls PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017112

Brian Mossop is currently the Community Editor at Wired, where he works across the brand, both magazine and website, to build and maintain strong social communities. Brian received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Lafayette College, and a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Duke University in 2006. His postdoctoral work was in neuroscience at UCSF and Genentech.

Brian has written about science for Wired, Scientific American, Slate, Scientific American MIND, and elsewhere. He primarily cover topics on neuroscience, development, behavior change, and health.

Contact Brian at, on Twitter (@bmossop), or visit his personal website.