TORONTO, November 15, 2023 – A new Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) study has found an association between youth participation in non-contact or team sports and a reduction in behavioural and social problems, and suggests that more frequent participation may improve behaviour for a child who is genetically at risk for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
The article, entitled Interactions between genetic risk for 21 neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders and sport activity on youth mental health, led by first author CAMH Research Analyst Melissa Misztal and senior author Dr. Daniel Felsky, Scientist at the Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatics, has been published in the journal Psychiatry Research.
The study analyzed a subset of data for 4,975 children aged nine and 10 who participated in the ongoing Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. The study is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and shares its data with researchers globally.
All of the children participating in the study provided saliva samples and underwent polygenic risk score analysis to assess their genetic risk for 21 forms of mental illness, including OCD. They were also assessed using a standard checklist for signs of 8 common behavioural and social problems in children (including anxiety, attention problems, and rule-breaking behaviors) that are associated with a higher risk for developing mental health conditions as they get older. All of the participating children also filled out extensive questionnaires about other aspects of their lives, including participation in sports.
The study found that children who took part in non-contact or team sports (such as soccer, basketball or water polo) had fewer problematic symptoms in all categories than children who did not participate in these types of sports. The greater the frequency of participation, the greater the benefit to youth mental health. However, those participating in individual sports (such as gymnastics, skateboarding or tennis) had fewer differences in symptoms, and those participating in contact sports (including football, ice hockey and wrestling) had higher levels of rule-breaking behaviours.
“Children who participated in non-contact or team sports had on average lower problematic symptoms across the board in every domain we examined,” said Dr. Daniel Felsky. “They had fewer attention problems, fewer thought problems, fewer withdrawn and depressed symptoms and fewer rule-breaking behaviours.”
While it has been established that team sports participation in young people can improve psychological wellbeing and reduce risk of developing mental illness, no previous studies have examined this relationship in the context of genetic risk over time. “Not only did we identify previously unobserved associations between sports participation and problematic symptoms in this population, but crucially we tested if these associations changed for children with different genetic risk profiles. For children at high genetic risk for OCD, we found this was the case.”
Previous studies have found that physical activity promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain, a process known as ‘neurogenesis’ that has beneficial effects on cognition and reasoning. It also produces secretions of serotonin in the brain. The authors speculate that since OCD is associated with serotonin deficiencies, physical activity may have a uniquely protective effect on the brain for children with a genetic risk for OCD.
This study is part of Dr. Felsky’s overall work in the emerging field of “whole person modelling” that looks at the intersection of biological, psychosocial and environmental factors in the research, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
Dr. Felsky says that this study raises another possibility, that some mental illness could be prevented in young people with a genetic risk for OCD and possibly other forms of mental illness: “A key finding here is relevant to concerned parents whose child has a higher genetic risk for OCD and possibly other psychiatric disorders; these data suggest that even with a high genetic risk profile, frequent participation in sports may reduce that risk. This information can be really helpful to public policy-makers as sports participation in schools is a fairly low-cost, low-hanging fruit which appears to provide extensive benefits for mental wellness.”
About the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)
CAMH is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital and a world leading research centre in this field. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental illness and addiction. CAMH is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, and is a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. For more information, please visit camh.ca or follow @CAMHnews on Twitter.
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