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The Brain Can Recover Quickly When Boxers And MMA Fighters Quit Fighting

by Coffee Table Science

Boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting are aggressive and dangerous sports. They have been associated with physical and mental injuries. These can affect the overall functioning of the body, including thinking ability, behaviour and memory skills. Interestingly, researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Las Vegas, Nevada, have found that boxers and MMA fighters may experience recovery in their cognitive skills and brain structure when they quit or stop fighting. 

Image Credits: Pixabay

Action sports vs human body

Boxing and MMA fighting are risky as they involve sudden blows or jerks to the body, especially the head and neck. Though governing sports federations have been working on minimising their dangers during fights by reforming laws, these games are still dangerous for the involved people. Boxing and MMA fights usually involve head, brain, eyes and body injuries. Repetitive hits to the head can cause neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease), behavioural problems and trauma. Further, body injuries include bruises, broken ribs, internal bleeding, etc. 

Diving deep into the research

Researchers surveyed 45 retired male fighters who were not active for two years. These included 22 boxers, 22 MMA fighters and one martial artist, with an average age of 32 years. They also surveyed 45 active male professionals, including 17 boxers, 27 MMA artists and one martial artist, with an average age of 30 years. The groups were compared based on age, race, education and the number of fights before the study. All fighters had a professional fight within a year at the beginning of the study. Active fighters continued to participate in professional fights, while retired ones did not participate for two years. 

Over three years, researchers looked at their subjects’ fighting history. All fighters completed cognitive tests to measure brain functioning, motor speed, verbal memory and information processing speed. They also had brain scans to determine how their brains worked before and after the study. Half of the subjects also had blood tests to find the presence of a neurofilament light chain, a nerve fibre component detected in the blood when nerves are damaged. 

Image Credits: Pixabay

Study results

Researchers used FDA-approved thinking and behaviour test scores to measure verbal memory in fighters. They noticed improved scores in retired fighters compared to active ones. Retired professionals showed enhanced cognitive skills, including motor speed, thinking ability, and response to external stimuli, compared to active fighters. Further, neurofilament chain levels in retired participants decreased, while the levels were stable in active participants indicating a better recovery in former ones.  

“The results of this study suggest a recovery of cognitive functioning in fighters who are no longer exposed to repetitive hits to the head,” said Aaron Ritter, study author. “Future research is needed to determine if there is a time in a fighter’s career where recovery is less likely to happen or to identify factors that might indicate greater risk for developing a neurodegenerative condition.” 

The study also had some limitations. First, it only focused on male fighters. Secondly, it couldn’t determine how many repetitive hits each participant sustained. Many hits occurred during their training period, but there was no way to measure them. 

The study was published in the journal Neurology. 

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