Researchers using cutting edge technology to monitor head trauma in fighters

Published: Aug. 22, 2016 at 3:36 PM EDT
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For the first time, researchers are using cutting-edge technology to watch repetitive head trauma in fighters.

The NFL has taken a lot of heat for not being more proactive about the long-term issue of concussions in its players and now the mixed martial arts, or MMA, industry is stepping up its game.

Researchers are running a long-term study on the effects of impact on fighters’ heads and brains and doctors hope to learn how to detect early signs of brain injury and other head trauma.

Rudy Morales has been a professional MMA fighter for years. He tries to take care of his body, so when he heard about a professional fighters brain health study, he joined.

"The sport that we do is a full contact sport," said Morales, "and it’s better to be safe and see what things you could prevent."

Rudy, along with 600 other MMA fighters and boxers, come in once a year to be evaluated on cognition, balance, coordination, as well as receiving brain imaging with PET scans and MRI’S.

"We just had a great opportunity to really try to understand how CTE developed, what are the risk factors, how can we diagnose it early, and of course, eventually how do we prevent it," said Dr. Charles Bernick, associate medical director at the Cleveland Clinic.

Doctor Bernick monitors the scans, looking for changes over time.

"When we see these changes in the volume of the fibers, we also see changes in how these people perform on tests of processing, speed of their mental acuity, of their reaction time."

Rudy says it just makes sense to participate in the study, which is free to fighters.

"It’s really going to help people down the road, not only for our generation, but for generations to come."

Doctor Bernick says results will help combat head injuries in sports fighters as well as athletes in other sports and military members.



TOPIC: Fighters Get Concussions Too!

REPORT: MB #4133

BACKGROUND: A concussion is a traumatic brain injury. It alters the way your brain functions and the effects are usually temporary but can include headaches and problems with coordination, balance, concentration and memory. Concussions usually are caused by a blow to the head, or if the head and upper body are violently shaken. Since most concussions do not involve a loss of consciousness, some people have concussions and don't realize it. Most of these brain injuries are mild and people usually fully recover. Concussions are common in contact sports, such as football.


CONCUSSIONS AND MMA: The contact sport that has been in the news lately for concussions is football; however unlike football, in professional mixed martial fighters wear small, fingerless gloves and no headgear. Researchers from the University of Toronto found that about one-third of professional mixed martial arts matches ending in knockout or technical knockout, usually after a combatant was hit in the head five to 10 times in the last 10 seconds before the fight was stopped. In that study, it showed that in mixed martial arts, or MMA, there is a higher incidence of brain trauma than boxing or other martial arts. Now, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is partnering with the Cleveland Clinic on a study by researchers who have enrolled nearly 400 active and retired fighters. Researchers are examining factors like genetics, lifestyle or head trauma exposure and susceptibility to injury in MMA fighters. Preliminary results from the Cleveland Clinic studies found --based on a formula including number of fights, years fighting and fights per year -- athletes with higher exposure to head trauma were likelier to score lower on cognitive testing.


WHAT’S NEXT?: The researchers have suggested some measures to make the sport safer for players and prevent fewer brain injuries. They proposed introducing rules, like in boxing, where a fighter gets a 10-second count and then is evaluated after a knockdown. They suggested more training to help referees stop fights more quickly by identify fighters who are defenseless or have lost consciousness.



Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health