01. NeuroTracker

New Research: Playing Sports Enhances Cognitive Abilities

April 26, 2024

The physiological prowess of athletes has long fascinated researchers and sports fans alike. However past research published in Nature showed that perceptual-cognitive abilities are perhaps the strongest measure defining what makes elite athletes the cream of the crop. A new study by the Faubert Lab at the University of Montreal took on the nature versus nurture debate to investigate if playing sports actually helps enhance these mental abilities, as well as to see if such effects differs between males and females. Here we will cover the key findings.

What Was Studied

The study, conducted on 72 individuals aged 16 to 22, split participants into 4 groups: male athletes, female athletes, male non-athletes and female non-athletes.

Each group performed 15 sessions of NeuroTracker - a 3D multiple object tracking task that tests and trains perceptual-cognitive abilities. 15 sessions was used to establish an initial baseline of high-level cognitive functions, as well as to assess learning adaptations to this task – a novel functional measure of neuroplasticity.

What Was Found

All groups showed significant improvement within a total of 90-minutes of distributed NeuroTracker training.

Initially, male athletes demonstrated higher performance compared to their female counterparts and non-athletes. However, over five weeks of training performed in 3-session blocks, female athletes and male non-athletes demonstrated similar learning rates to male athletes.

Throughout the training female athletes also maintained consistently higher scores than male non-athletes, as did male athletes over other groups. This performance displayed a clear cognitive advantage from engaging in sports.

Results from 5 x 3 session blocks of NeuroTracker

The data was then analyzed to produce ‘normalized’ learning rates, revealing very similar improvement rates, apart from the non-athlete female group. This contrasts prior research showing that experienced world-class athletes have greatly superior learning rates, suggesting a relationship between level of elitism in sports performance and functional neuroplasticity levels.


Though a relatively simple study, the findings indicate that playing sports, even at a relatively young age, has an observable effect on enhancing cognitive performance.

The implications of these findings extend beyond the realm of sports. For instance, NeuroTracker performance has been shown in driving research to be significantly correlated with driving safety.

Additionally higher cognitive performance is associated with better brain health, possibly closing the loop between the benefits of sports and exercise. That said, more research is needed to differentiate the physiological benefits of exercise and the cognitive stimulation involved with high perception and decision-making demands found particularly in team sports.

In terms of the male and female differences, other NeuroTracker research by Texas A&M nutrition scientists suggests that these differences are negligible when college-age females have sufficient iron in their diet. This might partly corroborate these findings, given that young females athletes are likely to have more nutritious diets that non-athletes.

As the human brain does not fully mature until around the age of 25, the overall results add evidence to the potential neurodevelopmental benefits of early involvement in sports.


Gender comparison of perceptual-cognitive learning in young athletes

Isabelle Legault & Jocelyn Faubert, Nature Scientific Reports

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