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Head trauma in sports: How much is too much?

Apr 19th, 2012
Staff Writer

Photo credit: national institutes of mental healthHead trauma is a major concern throughout the sports world. Now scientists say they may be closer to understanding just when blows to the head begin to effect thinking ability, memory and overall brain health.

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic conducted a study that showed there may be a threshold at which blows to the head among boxers begins to impact brain function. The study involved 35 boxers and 43 mixed martial arts athletes with an average age of 29. The fighters were part of the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study. After undergoing tests to measure cognitive ability and memory, the fighters underwent brain scans. They were followed during their careers and then were divided into two groups: people who had fought for nine years or fewer and people who had fought for more than nine years.

The study showed that more years of fighting and more fights per year were linked with lower brain volume in three key areas of the brain, which is evidence of brain damage. In those people with fewer than nine years of fighting, there was no sign of changes in memory or thinking ability. However, those who had fought nine years or more showed a decline in memory and cognitive ability.

"Our study shows there appears to be a threshold at which continued repetitive blows to the brain begin to cause measurable changes in memory and thinking, despite brain volume changes that can be found earlier," said the lead author of the study, Dr. Charles Bernick, of the Cleveland Clinic. Bernick will present the study next week at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in New Orleans.