Professional Fighters Brain Health Study Shows Bad News For Veteran Fighters

Mark Hominick makes the 2012 Punchface of the Year on Eddie Yagin. Quality capture of the blood spurt there. Photo by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting.

We have all heard stories of the hard-headed warrior who refuses to quit and sends all advice to hang up the gloves in one ear and out the other. In recent news, a scientific study done by the Ruvo Brain Health Center in Las Vegas suggests that there may be an actual threshold at which the brains of veteran fighters start to shrink and show significant decline or damage.

If the study turns out the way these initial results suggest, that veteran fighter could literally be able to predict the point at which too many brain cells are dribbled away to go unscathed- and that threshold may be reached sooner than you think. This is one serious, scary set of finds to look at and if the multi-year study continues to get the funding and participants it has been, this could force major changes in all professional sports.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has been a regular topic here at Bloody Elbow, as scientists and fighters are finding out that there are indeed links between repetitive blows to the head, not enough rest in between blows and mental disorders or diseases like Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's, pugilistic dementia and an array of other lifelong and debilitating conditions.

Related Links: Ben Thapa on New Jersey's Fighter Safety Symposium | Brent Brookhouse talks Gary Goodrige and Traumatic Brain Injury | David Castillo on Concussions and Lou Gehrig's Disease | David Castillo on NCAA and NFL Lawsuits about Concussions and Dementia | Bloody Elbow's Best Writing of 2011: Michael David Smith on Jose Figueroa license to fight in California 2 weeks after being KO'd in Russia

The meat and potatoes of the study will be discussed after the jump.

The particular study hitting the newswires in recent days is run out of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a division of the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas, NV. The four year study (as currently planned right now) is run by a man named Dr. Charles Bernick, the associate director of the Ruvo Center. As Las Vegas is one of the premier fight cities in the world, the Cleveland Clinic has worked with hundreds of fighters to get their medicals, x-rays and brain scans done. There is a fairly large pool of willing subjects for this study there, with the study claiming over 130 participants and the various news article citing other numbers.

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Dr. Charles Bernick via photos.lasvegassun.com

The abstract or study itself is somewhat hard to find at the moment, but a short press release has gotten a variety of mainstream publications hvae chosen to cover this (primarily for the boxing angle).

From the press release, the Ruvo Center team claims:

Preliminary Findings

Researchers have analyzed the results from the first 130 fighters and have found:

• Fighters with longer fighting histories have worse cognitive outcomes, as measured by memory and processing tests, and suffer from an interruption of nerve fibers in the brain.

• Fighters with longer fighting histories have less self-control, as measured by impulsivity scales.

• "The Ledge Effect" - Fighters can sustain a certain amount of trauma without cognitive decline, and then they reach a point where further fighting is associated with more rapid cognitive decline.

Trawling through the articles from the mainstream publications, we find that Bernick and his team arranged the study in a particular way that ended up showing an unusually early onset point for the criteria used to measure the brain health and mental performance of the athletes:

As part of an ongoing study on brain health, the researchers divided 109 licensed boxers and mixed martial artists into three groups: those who had fought for less than 6 years, 6 to 12 years or more than 12 years. Their average age was about 29.

Participants underwent MRI scans to measure their brain volume and tests of their thinking and memory.

"In those that fought less than 6 years, we didn't find any changes," Bernick said. For that group, he said, "the more you fought didn't seem to make any differences in the size of brain structure or their performance on some of the tests like reaction time."

But for the other two groups of boxers and combat athletes, "the greater number of fights, the sizes of certain volumes of the brain were decreasing," he said. "But, it was only in those that fought more than 12 years that we could detect the changes in performance in reaction time and processing speed."

Women made up about 10 percent of the fighters in the study, too small a number to make any comparisons for now, Bernick said.

Quoted from Lisa Esposito, US News HealthDay reporter.

As of right now, the results are still being presented to the attendees of the week-long seminars in New Orleans by the American Academy of Neuroscience. As more information comes out, we at Bloody Elbow will update you - this is a significant topic in MMA and should be covered as much as possible.

In the Los Angeles Times coverage, the "ultimate" goal of the study is laid out for us:

Currently, fighters are required to undergo only one brain MRI test, which could be taken at the beginning of their career. State commissions can request an additional MRI if they're alarmed by a fighter's age, performance or behavior. But pinpointing when to stop a fight remains an undefined point of discretion.

With his research, Bernick was hoping to help establish the threshold neurologists can use to determine the start of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

The coverage at CNN makes a good point with this:

What the study cannot yet account for is what makes one fighter more susceptible to CTE than another. Findings in the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study will later include factors such as genetics, proteins in the blood, speech analysis, educational level, and other factors that could paint a more vivid picture of the disease.

I strongly suspect that training methods - fighters not wearing headgear or sparring at near full fight intensity levels with few restrictions on head blows - will show to be much more significant than things like blood proteins or muscular structure. The old days of the Ken Shamrock-run Lion's Den is exactly what fighters should never be enduring during their training or beginning stages.

As the Los Angeles Times notes, this study has gained significant funding this year and in part from one of the owners of the UFC:

The study received a $12-million boost in funding earlier this year from a Las Vegas dinner and auction. One of the highlights of the night was Ultimate Fighting Championship Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta outbidding Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, spending $1.1 million for a pair of autographed gloves belonging to Muhammad Ali.

The following of fighters who show mental deterioration and evident physical signs of declining brain health could be possible with this level of continued funding and openness. The Ruvo team wants an end total of 625 fighters under their care and study over the next four years. No word on whether a distinction is being made between combat sports athletes of particular sports has been forthcoming at this time.

This is good for the sport of MMA and for all professional athletes putting their livelihood and lives on the line for a few short years of notoriously fickle athletic fame and fortune.

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