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New Study Suggests Boxers Should Retire At The First Signs Of Brain Damage

Freddie Roach fought for too long and developed Parkinson's Disease. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Freddie Roach fought for too long and developed Parkinson's Disease. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
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Preliminary results from a new brain study suggest that there might be a point of no return for some combatants. Essentially, there becomes a point where the brain can no longer repair itself and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) becomes inevitable. The symptoms of CTE include personality changes and general cognitive difficulties, much like Alzheimer's disease.

The actual study involves a combination of brain scans using MRI technology and various cognitive tests to measure the extent of damage to the brain. The scope of the study includes 109 fighters segmented into three groups based on the amount of time the fighter has been a professional. The specific cutoffs for each group are as follows: the first group has less than 6 years of experience, the second group has 6 to 12 years, and the final group has more than 12 years of experience.

"In those that fought less than six years, we didn't find any changes," Bernick said. For that group, he said, "the more you fought didn't seem to make any differences in the size of brain structure or their performance on some of the tests like reaction time."

But for the other two groups of boxers and combat athletes, "the greater number of fights, the sizes of certain volumes of the brain were decreasing," he said. "But, it was only in those that fought more than 12 years that we could detect the changes in performance in reaction time and processing speed."

These results suggest that there may be a time lag between brain injury and becoming symptomatic, although the researchers are not convinced that the time lag always exists. Regardless of time lag, a fighter should retire immediately at the first signs of brain damage in order to prevent future irrevocable damage.

The researchers suggest that testing be mandatory in order to stop the endemic of brain injuries.

"The big thing we can do is some kind of baseline testing on all athletes, so we can compare where they are [after a head injury] with where they were," Dr. Howard Derman, medical director at the Methodist Concussion Center in Houston, said. "I think X-ray and MRI scans are a larger leap, and players' associations of all the leagues would really [be opposed]."

Brain injuries are a serious problem in boxing and we need to have more stringent testing to save boxers from themselves. Should ruling commissions force boxers retire at the first signs of brain damage?

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