The Tipping Point for Head Trauma
The greater number of head blows that boxers and other combat athletes absorb, the greater their risk for brain damage and other complications.
This is particularly true as time goes by, according to a recent study.
Although the brain can tolerate a certain amount of trauma and repair itself, professional fighters who sustain multiple blows to the head may develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy, says study author Charles Bernick, M.D., at the Cleveland Clinic. Also known as Boxer's syndrome, the condition is a degenerative brain disease that causes the same kinds of thinking difficulties and personality changes seen with Alzheimer's disease.
"The more exposure you have to head trauma, the higher your risk of developing long-term complications," Dr. Bernick says.
For the study, the researchers looked at 109 licensed boxers and mixed martial artists. They divided them into three groups: those who had fought for less than six years, those who had fought six to 12 years, and those who had fought for more than 12 years.
The researchers had all of the participants undergo MRI scans to measure their brain volume. They also assessed each person's thinking and memory.
In the first group, the researchers noted no changes in brain volume, thinking, or memory. In the other groups of boxers and combat athletes, the greater the number of fights, the more the volume of their brain decreased, Dr. Bernick says. In those who had fought more than 12 years, researchers were able to detect the changes in performance in reaction time and processing speed.
Concussion expert Howard Derman, M.D., at the Methodist Concussion Center in Houston, says that boxing is more dangerous to the brain than football because boxers field more blows to the head - and professional boxers don't use protective headgear.
But he says he's not convinced that a lag time exists between early head injuries from sports and measurable brain changes.
"Most of us believe that there is the period of quiescence, which is why you're seeing a lot of these [retired] football players in their 40s and 50s developing an issue," Dr. Derman says. "The disconcerting feature is that there are multiple cases of athletes who are very young," showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy on autopsy - for instance, after dying in vehicle accidents.
The study was presented at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting.
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