Study of athletes’ brain health enters 10th year with plenty of data, optimism

LAS VEGAS — On Tuesday, a fighter showed up at the Cleveland Clinic to undergo a series of largely routine tests. It was the 10th time the fighter had undergone this battery of brain examinations.

The significance of that was not lost on Dr. Aaron Ritter, the co-primary investigator of what is now known as the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study.

A decade ago when the study began, it was known as the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, and was designed to help determine the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma.

The UFC, which on Thursday announced a donation of $1 million to help continue funding the study for the next five years, and various combat sports promoters have sent athletes to the Clinic since the inception of the study.

“We want to do all that we can do to support athlete health and safety,” UFC COO Lawrence Epstein said.

The goal of the study in simple terms is to understand brain injuries better and how to prevent cognitive decline and death. Ritter said the best way to accomplish that is to study athletes involved in sports in which there is repetitive head trauma over a lengthy period to track changes.

Nearly 900 athletes have visited the Cleveland Clinic once to do a brain scan, memory test and bloodwork. But to Ritter, the important thing is the number of those who return.

“More than half of those folks have come back for a follow-up and that is incredibly valuable,” Ritter said. “[Tuesday], we saw someone for the 10th time. We get an amazing amount of data from following them and it’s testament to the UFC for the encouragement they provide [their athletes to participate].”

The UFC has long been among the study’s top benefactors and it has committed more than $2 million over the years.

LAS VEGAS, NV - FEBRUARY 05:  Dr. Charles Bernick, MD - Assoc. Medical Director, Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center, addresses the crowd as the UFC & Cleveland Clinic host a group of media to explain the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health on February 5, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Dr. Charles Bernick explains the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study to media at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health on Feb. 5, 2016 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

It’s critical because the research is laborious and there are no overnight answers. Dr. Charles Bernick, who is the other co-primary investigator of the study, said it is slow process but the only way to get proper answers.

Their work has already appeared in more than 30 peer-reviewed journals.

“Science usually doesn’t just kind of come in these big, major steps,” Bernick said. “When you’re trying to understand the long-term effects of repetitive head impacts, how we detect it early, what are the risk factors and what we should do about it. You don’t get the answer by looking at one brain scan one time, but over the 10 years, we’ve learned lots of things.”

Epstein said the UFC has committed to the study because it wants to make combat sports as safe for all competitors as possible. A large part of that is understanding why some people are more predisposed to brain injury than others and what causes cognitive decline for those who have fought for a long time.

Colloquially, fighters who are losing their faculties are referred to as “punch drunk” but the study is trying to determine the causes and how to predict it.

If that can occur, athletic commissions can test for it and doctors will be able to flag the most at-risk fighters.

“What we’re trying to achieve is that we want this type of analysis to be a fundamental part of the regulation of combat sports,” Epstein said. “As you know, in order to be licensed as a boxer or an MMA athlete, you’ve got to get an eye exam. If that license reveals you have a detached retina, you can’t get licensed; you can’t compete.

“We want to get to the same place with the brain. If somebody has the genetic markers or some other indicator that they’re predisposed to brain injury, or if we see indications before [symptoms] start manifesting themselves, we want the ability to say the same thing we would to the person with the detached retina: You can’t get a license and you need to go on and do something else with your life. This is not about diagnosing injury after it occurred. This is about preventing injury from taking place in the first place.”

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