Involvement in Sports, Hippocampal Volume, and Depressive Symptoms in Children

  • Lisa S. Gorham
    Address correspondence to Lisa Gorham, B.A., Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University, Box 1125, 1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130.
    Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri
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  • Terry Jernigan
    Department of Cognitive Science, University of California–San Diego, San Diego, California

    Center for Human Development, University of California–San Diego, San Diego, California
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  • Jim Hudziak
    Department of Psychiatry, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont

    Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families, Burlington, Vermont
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  • Deanna M. Barch
    Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri

    Department of Psychiatry, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri

    Department of Radiology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri
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Published:February 04, 2019DOI:



      Recent studies have found that higher levels of exercise are associated with fewer symptoms of depression among young people. In addition, research suggests that exercise may modify hippocampal volume, a brain region that has been found to show reduced volume in depression. However, it is not clear whether this relationship emerges as early as preadolescence.


      We examined data from a nationwide sample of 4191 children 9 to 11 years of age from the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study. The parents of the children completed the Child Behavior Checklist, providing data about the child’s depressive symptoms, and the Sports and Activities Questionnaire, which provided data about the child’s participation in 23 sports. Children also took part in a structural magnetic resonance imaging scan, providing us with measures of bilateral hippocampal volume.


      Sports involvement interacted with sex to predict depressive symptoms, with a negative relationship found in boys only (t = −5.257, β = −.115, p < .001). Sports involvement was positively correlated with hippocampal volume in both boys and girls (t = 2.810, β = .035, p = .007). Hippocampal volume also interacted with sex to predict depressive symptoms, with a negative relationship in boys (t = −2.562, β = −.070, p = .010), and served as a partial mediator for the relationship between involvement in sports and depressive symptoms in boys.


      These findings help illuminate a potential neural mechanism for the impact of exercise on the developing brain, and the differential effects in boys versus girls mirror findings in the animal literature. More research is needed to understand the causal relationships between these constructs.


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      Linked Article

      • The Role of Sport Involvement in Reducing Depressive Symptoms via Changes to Hippocampal Structure: Next Steps for Research in Developing Samples
        Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and NeuroimagingVol. 4Issue 5
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          Experiencing depressive symptoms in childhood is related to risk of developing a unipolar depressive disorder later in life. Depression in young people increases the likelihood of negative long-term outcomes, such as poor physical health, relationship quality, and vocational achievement and an increased risk of suicide. Depression accounts for the greatest burden of disease in this age group (1). As such, identifying risk factors and prevention and/or early intervention strategies for depression in young people is essential for ultimately lessening the burden associated with this mental illness.
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