Expert athletes activate somatosensory and motor planning regions of the brain when passively listening to familiar sports sounds

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The present functional magnetic resonance imaging study examined the neural response to familiar and unfamiliar, sport and non-sport environmental sounds in expert and novice athletes. Results revealed differential neural responses dependent on sports expertise. Experts had greater neural activation than novices in focal sensorimotor areas such as the supplementary motor area, and pre- and postcentral gyri. Novices showed greater activation than experts in widespread areas involved in perception (i.e. supramarginal, middle occipital, and calcarine gyri; precuneus; inferior and superior parietal lobules), and motor planning and processing (i.e. inferior frontal, middle frontal, and middle temporal gyri). These between-group neural differences also appeared as an expertise effect within specific conditions. Experts showed greater activation than novices during the sport familiar condition in regions responsible for auditory and motor planning, including the inferior frontal gyrus and the parietal operculum. Novices only showed greater activation than experts in the supramarginal gyrus and pons during the non-sport unfamiliar condition, and in the middle frontal gyrus during the sport unfamiliar condition. These results are consistent with the view that expert athletes are attuned to only the most familiar, highly relevant sounds and tune out unfamiliar, irrelevant sounds. Furthermore, these findings that athletes show activation in areas known to be involved in action planning when passively listening to sounds suggests that auditory perception of action can lead to the re-instantiation of neural areas involved in producing these actions, especially if someone has expertise performing the actions.

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