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New study to assess brain damage in professional fighters
A new study aims to track 500 boxers and mixed martial arts fighters, monitoring their brains to gain a better understanding of head trauma and to improve treatments for brain damage.
By Lance Pugmire
July 16, 2011, 3:00 p.m.
Reporting from Las Vegas— A prestigious neurology clinic has launched an unprecedented brain study of professional fighters with the goal of advancing research to improve various treatments for brain damage.
"We know what permanent brain damage looks like in its final stages, but we know so little about what causes it and what happens during cumulative trauma," said Maureen Peckman of the Cleveland Clinic. Peckman is coordinating the new study between the clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas and officials with the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
The study hopes to get 500 boxers and mixed martial arts fighters to volunteer for the research project. It is being funded by a grant in excess of $400,000 by billionaire Kirk Kerkorian's Lincy Foundation.
Participants will undergo four annual MRI brain scans, along with physical, cognitive and speech tests to monitor how brain activity can be altered by suffering head trauma in the ring.
Boxing promoters Bob Arum and Richard Schaefer and Ultimate Fighting Championship Chairman Lorenzo Fertitta have agreed to encourage their stable of fighters to participate in the study.
"A fighter's health is very important. Who wants to be involved in something that endangers a human life?" said Schaefer, Golden Boy Promotions chief executive. "If they can come up with a way to tell what the implications of boxing are, it's of interest for all of us to know."
Long boxing careers have unquestionably diminished the health of many fighters, including Muhammad Ali, who has Parkinson's disease, and the sport's premier trainer, Freddie Roach.
"The hypothesis is that we will find changes — be it in a brain scan, blood flow, brain fiber sheathing or the size of the brain — that will allow us to establish objective markers for ongoing damage [and] to inform the fighter where he stands," said Dr. Charles Bernick, the neurologist leading the study.
Roach, who had 53 professional fights, is suffering the effects of Parkinson's, including tremors and reduced mobility. He acknowledges he should have quit before his last five bouts.
He shunned the advice to retire from his legendary trainer, Eddie Futch, and fought 47 additional rounds, losing four of his last five fights.
"Something from a high medical authority that can show a boxer's deterioration [and] force guys to retire would be good. That's the only way you're going to get guys to listen," said Roach from his Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood. Roach and his staff train amateur boxers, aspiring Olympians, Manny Pacquiao and junior welterweight Amir Khan, who fights Zab Judah on July 23 in a title fight in Las Vegas.
Boxing regulators say they need more objective medical expertise to strengthen restrictions on boxing licenses.
Barring a reported head injury or ailment, boxers need to provide Nevada with only one MRI result over the course of their career to be licensed. The clinic's Peckman called that "archaic."