Neurologists study head trauma in fighters, athletes to understand neurological affects

LAS VEGAS - Neurologists across the globe will recognize World Brain Day Saturday to raise awareness about brain health.

In Las Vegas, top doctors are conducting clinical trials at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

Their goal is to find new ways of treating cognitive brain disorders, including the damaging effects of repetitive brain trauma.

The American Academy of Neurology released new findings out of the Lou Ruvo Center saying, "Boxers and mixed martial arts fighters may have markers of long-term brain injury in their blood."

The findings were presented for the first time at the American Academy of Neurology's Sports Concussion conference last week.

A lot of people consider Las Vegas the "Fight Capital of the World" and neurologists are using that to their advantage -- conducting a clinical trial called the "Professional Fighters Brain Health Study."

Neurologists say they're trying to understand what happens to the brain after people are exposed to repetitive head trauma.  They said they also want to know how it can be eventually treated.

"I think the real concerns about concussions and having repetitive concussions younger in life is what's going to happen later in life," said Dr. Charles Bernick Associate Director of the Lou Ruvo Center who's heading the study. "It may lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which itself is a specific condition or it may be a risk factor for other diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease or Parkinson's."

Neurologists have been studying elite athletes, professional mixed martial arts fighters and boxers participating in combat sports since 2011 with the goal of understanding the neurological effects of their brain over time.

"We're very proud of the study itself," said Dr. Charles Bernick. "It probably is the largest study in the world that is looking at individuals who've been exposed to head trauma, both actively but also retired athletes and following them over time. It's never been done before, at least at this scale."

Dr. Bernick and his team of researchers are in their sixth year of comparing fighter brains to those of a controlled group with no record of head trauma.

"We know in our society between athletes and military and domestic violence there are so many people that are exposed to head trauma repetitively," said Bernick. "Yet we really don't understand the long term effects, although we know that it can be permanent neurological deficits. So this study is really trying to understand why that happens, can we detect it early and of course eventually how can we treat it?"

In the study, fighters and the controlled group participant in visual, processing and reaction tests that are part of the Cleveland Clinic's C-3 test.

The test is kind of like decoding a secret puzzle. Except doctors are decoding the human brain, comparing MRI's and blood tests.

Now new findings from the fighter study suggest neurologists new indicators of brain injury in participants who had a record of repeat head trauma.

Researchers compiled data from over a five-year period, discovered elevated levels of two markers for brain injury, and brain proteins called Neurofilament Light Chain and Tau, which are components of nerve fibers that can be detected in the blood when the fibers are injured.

The study compared both proteins in current and retired fighters to that of the controlled group.

Dr. Bernick says the study found that increased levels of these proteins could be associated with people who've experienced repetitive head trauma.

"Our goal is not to eliminate boxing or MMA or make it sissy or anything like that," said Dr. Bernick. "The goal really is to learn about long term effects, and then from what we learn, to help shape policies or procedures or training techniques that really improve performance and keep fighters safe."

Last year, the UFC donated a million dollars over the course of five years to the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study.

Dr. Bernick is hoping to gain relevant application to the data outside of just fighters long term.

"I think the product that we want to come out with this is several folds, Dr. Bernick said. "One is to make these sports safer, specifically combat sports. But on a broader scale, we really want to understand what are the risk factors for CTE? How to detect it early," said Dr. Bernick. "Because these are types of things we can then apply to the military to domestic violence victims, to football players. To really anybody who's been exposed to repetitive head trauma."

The study is now in its sixth year and ongoing with currently more than 700 professional and retired fighters enrolled. But researchers need more participants in their controlled group.

The Lou Ruvo Center is looking for healthy participants with normal cognitive brain function in their control group. Participants will be compensated and receive free brain scans.

Some of the requirements for participants wanting to be a part of the controlled group are as followed:
- Must be at least 18 years old
- Have no record of head trauma (including concussion)
- Must not have played football or hockey

Additional information can found here.

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