A new study suggests that even Olympic boxers show signs of minor central nervous system damage. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
While everyone knows that getting punched in the head can lead to brain damage, there is no good diagnostic test to measure the amount of degeneration. Currently, the best method is an MRI of the brain to check for swelling along with cognitive tests. Researchers from Sweden are trying to remedy this situation by examining several biomarkers in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in Olympic boxers.
This study involved 30 Olympic boxers with at least 45 fights and 25 people in the control group. Each boxer was tested 1 to 6 days after the fight and then again after a rest period of 14 days. Unfortunately, it seems that the best way to get CSF is to perform a spinal tap, which can include some scary side effects. I'll quote this article for the researcher's conclusions.
The researchers conclude that increased CSF levels of T-tau, NFL, GFAP, and S-100B (these are the biomarkers) in more than 80% of the boxers demonstrates that both the acute and the cumulative effect of head trauma in Olympic boxing may induce CSF biomarker changes that suggest minor central nervous injuries. They also state that the lack of normalization of NFL and GFAP after the rest period in a subgroup of boxers may indicate ongoing degeneration, and the recurrent head trauma in boxing may be associated with increased risk of chronic traumatic brain injury.
Essentially, these biomarkers are showing elevated levels in Olympic boxers suggest that there could be minor central nervous injuries. This is a scary result because amateur boxers are supposed to be protected from brain injury by the headgear. Also it seems that if these researchers repeated this study on professional boxers, the results could be staggering. Hopefully, more study into these biomarkers will lead to a diagnostic test to help boxers know when they are approaching the point of no return in terms of brain trauma.