Elite boxers and mixed martial artists are accustomed to doctors monitoring their bodies to make sure they’re in top shape for upcoming fights. Now, thanks to Charles Bernick, MD, Associate Medical Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Nevada, the country’s top professional fighters are giving their brains the same treatment, with the goal of understanding how repeated blows to the head lead to chronic neurological disease.
Over the next four years, boxers and mixed martial arts fighters in the fight capital of the world will come in for annual magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of their brains, along with tests of their reaction times, memory, speech and other cognitive functions.
If changes in brain volume, blood flow or injured nerve fibers in the brain correspond to worsening cognitive function, Dr. Bernick and his team will have found the red flags that could eventually prevent scores of people — not just fighters — from developing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and chronic encephalopathy.
“That’s why this study is so important,” says Dr. Bernick. “We hope the results will be applicable to the public, but if it’s only helpful for combat sports, that’s fine, too. Whether you’re a professional fighter, play hockey or football or are in a battlefield, it’s the same injury to the brain. The idea is that if someone has experienced repetitive brain trauma, can its impact be identified and treated?”
With the help of $400,000 from Kirk Kerkorian’s UCLA Lincy Dream Fund and access to fighters, Dr. Bernick and his colleagues are searching for information about brain health that fighters can use to plan their career — and that will open the door for insight into treatments that will stop acute brain injuries from turning into chronic brain illnesses.