Study Shows Changes in Fighters’ Brains Before Symptoms
One of the questions Dr. Charles Bernick and his colleagues ask boxers who come to the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health here is, “How many times have you been knocked out cold or gotten a concussion?” Most say, “never.”
Dr. Lowe/Cleveland Clinic
M.R.I. scans were used in the research. Some fighters had changes in their brains but showed no cognitive declines.
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Then the doctors ask, “How many times have you felt dazed and stunned?” Most say, “many times.”
This is part of the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, now a year old and with results from 109 fighters — more than have ever been compiled in a single research project. The principal finding: “There are detectable changes in the brain even before symptoms appear,” like memory loss or other changes in cognitive function resulting from repeated blows to the head, Dr. Bernick said.
The physical changes, detected by M.R.I. scans, are a reduction in size in the hippocampus and thalamus of the brains of fighters with more than six years in the ring. These parts of the brain deal with such functions as memory and alertness. While those who had fought for more than six years did not exhibit any declines in cognitive function, fighters with more than 12 years in the ring did. Thus, Dr. Bernick’s group concluded, the lag between detectability and physical symptoms probably occurs sometime during those six years.
Dr. Bernick will present these findings on Wednesday in New Orleans at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting, and the potential significance goes well beyond the health of boxers. The idea that an M.R.I. could help identify a degenerative brain disorder before a patient reports cognitive problems could help a broad range of people, from young athletes and combat soldiers to others who have been subjected to repeated blows to the head, neurologists say.
There may also be implications for understanding Alzheimer’s and other diseases among otherwise healthy elderly people, but these issues remain subjects for further study, said Dr. Jay L. Alberts, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Concussion Center. The Ohio-based clinic is the parent institution of the Las Vegas center.
“Everyone knows repeated blows to the head are not good for you,” Dr. Bernick said. “But nobody knows how you evolve from getting blows to developing long-term degenerative diseases. Now we have some sense of sequence