English Premier League soccer players,NHL hockey players, France's Top 14 club rugby players, and evenelite amateur athletes have better developed cognitive functions than the average university student, according to a new study.
The study undertaken by Professor Jocelyn Faubert of the University of Montreal's School of Optometry demonstrates a possible outcome of the increased cortical thickness that has been found in areas of trained athletes' brains.
It also offers researchers new avenues for exploring the treatment of people who have issues with attention, such as the elderly.
"Study participants were asked to describe a series of simulated objects moving through three dimensions. Although the context had nothing to do with any specific sport, we found that professional athletes were able to process the visual scenes much better than amateur athletes who were in turn better than the students," Faubert explained.
"It would appear that athletes are able to hyper-focus their attention to enhance learning, which is key to their abilities," Faubert said.
The researcher worked with 102 professional players from the groups mentioned above, 173 elite amateur athletes - who were recruited from the NCAA American university sports program and a European Olympic training centre, and 33 non-athlete university students.
The participants undertook the "3D-MOT" task fifteen times to evaluate several skills that scientists believe are critical to visual perceptual and cognitive abilities when viewing complex scenes: distribution of attention between a number of moving targets amongst distracters, large field of vision, maximum speed of objects that one is able to follow, and the ability to perceive depth.
The scene is "neutral", meaning that sport specific familiarity such as play knowledge or experience will not influence the score as the movements and interactions are totally random. The 3D-MOT task was in fact developed by Professor Faubert and can be evaluated by using a graphical simulation machine he invented, known as the Neurotracker, and it has been used by teams such as Manchester United and teams in the NFL and NHL.
The tests revealed that the professional athletes were able to learn how to track fast moving objects at a much superior rate than the other groups, although all three groups improved their score over the 15 training sessions.