New Research Shows MMA Fighters Have Higher Risk of Brain Damage

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMarch 26, 2013

Photo credit: Josh Hedges/Zuffa
Photo credit: Josh Hedges/Zuffa

The longer a pro fighter's career, the more likely that fighter will lose critical brain capacity, according to the results of a new neurological study conducted on pro MMA fighters and boxers.

Sarah Banks, a neuropsychologist and a researcher with the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, which is based in Las Vegas, revealed the findings over the weekend at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting, according to a report from MedPage Today.

After studying MRI scans for 135 MMA fighters and 104 boxers, researchers found indications of a connection between the duration of a fighter's career and significant degradation in certain areas of the brain.

According to the MedPage report, Banks studied five distinct areas of the brain: the caudate, putamen, thalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus.

Researchers did not notice any major variations in individuals with up to five years of fighting experience. However, that trend quickly changed for longer-tenured fighters, in whom the research team repeatedly observed significantly higher-than-normal brain volume loss, which is a key culprit behind diminished brain function and typically is caused by aging, disease or trauma.

In fighters with 15 years of experience, brain volume was 10 percent lower in the caudate—an area critical to learning and memory—compared with those fighting for five years or less. Brain volume was five percent lower in the amygdala, which plays big roles in memory and emotions, and the putamen, which regulates movement and different types of learning.

The caudate and putamen are two components of the basal ganglia, which, generally speaking, controls motor function, behavior and learning, among other things. Banks observed in her recent study that fighters who fought longer or more frequently had a weakened connection between the basal ganglia and other areas of the brain. 

Issues in the basal ganglia have been previously implicated in chronic athlete head injuries and brain problems, most notably chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The Cleveland Clinic study found no significant evidence of brain loss in the thalamus or hippocampus.

According to the MedPage Today report, Banks said the findings were preliminary and called for more intensive research on the topic.