Before football’s “concussions crisis”, brain injuries were associated with a different violent sport – fighting. The effect of repeated blows to the head during boxing or other forms of fighting was well-recognized as “boxer’s dementia pugilistica,” even before CTE was ever discovered in an autopsy.
However, the recent focus on football – America’s most popular sport – has allowed boxing and MMA to continue to thrive despite the obvious risk for permanent brain damage. Even the recent highly publicized fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather went by with little to no mention of the fighter’s potential for brain trauma.
Now, a recent study confirms what we already suspected. Fighters are likely developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other related forms of brain disease, and the evidence is in their blood.
The findings presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s Sports Concussion Conference show that boxers and MMA fighters show signs of repeated concussions and permanent brain trauma in blood tests, even if they show no clear symptoms of CTE.
“This study is part of a larger study to detect not just individual concussions but permanent brain injury overall at its earliest stages and to determine which fighters are at greatest risk of long-term complications,” said study author Charles Bernick, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Our study looked at data over a five-year period and found elevated levels of two brain injury markers in the blood; now the question is whether they may signify permanent traumatic brain injury with long-term consequences.”
For the study, Bernick and colleagues gathered blood samples from 291 active professional fighters with an average age of 30. They also collected 44 samples from retired fighters with an average age of 45, as well as 103 blood samples from people with no history of professional fighting with an average age of 30.
The team then evaluated the blood samples and found both the current fighters had significantly higher levels of two proteins associated with brain injury. The two proteins, called neurofilament light chain and tau both become concentrated in the blood immediately after a brain injury. The release and buildup of these proteins in the brain and body are believed to contribute to the development of CTE.
The researchers noted that those who had fought within two weeks of the blood samples being taken showed the highest levels of these proteins. Those with higher levels of neurofilament light chain protein also performed poorly on computerized tests of cognitive ability and processing capabilities compared to non-fighters.
The findings are just the start of a larger ongoing effort to study concussions and CTE in professional fighters, and it is difficult to draw concrete conclusions from the results. Still, the early report supports the idea that professional fighters are at a high risk for short-term injuries and long-term brain disease.