Researchers have enrolled close to 700 mixed martial arts fighters and boxers, both active and retired, in the past six years. The ambitious goal: to learn to identify early signs of trauma-induced brain damage from subtle changes in blood chemistry, brain imaging, and performance tests — changes that may show up decades before visible symptoms such as cognitive impairment, depression, and impulsive behavior.
Cleveland Clinic researchers reported that active fighters monitored over time had higher levels of two brain proteins, called neurofilament light and tau, compared to retired fighters or non-fighters. It’s still unclear whether those proteins signal a higher risk of [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]. But the discovery gives scientists a focus for future research.
Among the study’s other findings: Fighters with greater exposure to repetitive head trauma have lower brain volumes. Fighters are significantly more likely to have a cavity in their brains compared to non-fighters. And looking at seven specific features on an MRI scan can distinguish which fighters are cognitively impaired.
While such longitudinal studies are important, it’s important to remember that the field is still young, with no consensus on the best tools to look for early signs of damage, said [neuroscientist] Michael Hutchison.
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