February 4, 2014, was a big day for MMA. It was not only the day Senator John McCain finally made nice with the sport after nearly 20 years as its greatest and most recognizable detractor, it was also the day the UFC, Bellator, and Glory kickboxing threw their support and their donations behind a study out of the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health designed to look at the effects of combat sports on the human brain and determine whether MRIs and other tests can detect changes in brain health caused by repeated blows to the head. The press conference that day felt like a great leap forward into cultural legitimacy and human decency for a sport many felt lacked in both. McCain was there, as were UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and UFC fighters Jon Jones And Glover Teixeira, who were only two months out from their fight at UFC 172 but managed to put aside their animosity out of solidarity to the cause of science and good PR.
The Professional Fighters Brain Health Study has actually been going on since 2011, when Dr. Charles Bernick set out to recruit 625 current and former mixed martial artists and boxers to research the long-term cumulative effects of repetitive head injuries and determine what factors lead to a greater chance of developing chronic neurological disorders like dementia and Parkinson's Disease. The subjects—either active fighters or retired fighters with at least 10 professional fights—show up at the clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada, once a year and receive a brain scan, computerized testing of cognitive function, a neurological exam, and other services. The UFC and Bellator and the Nevada State Athletic Commission all say they've encouraged fighters to take part, and many fighters (Bernick says approximately 600 have been involved, but he's only maintained a 40% retention rate), short of cash but terrified by reports about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other neurological bogeymen now plaguing the sporting world (especially the NFL), say they've signed up to get free MRIs and blood testing.
Yesterday Bernick went before the Nevada State Athletic Commission to present the preliminary findings of the study and to make recommendations to the country's most influential combat sports regulatory authority in the hopes of changing how commissions deal with potential brain trauma.
Those findings, at this point, are relatively predictable. For example, Bernick said, increasing exposure to repetitive head trauma leads to lower brain volumes and a decrease in processing speed. And the more exposure to repetitive head trauma, the greater the likelihood of cognitive impairment. The number of fights and knockouts a fighter experiences correlates to a loss of fibers running across the brain, as well as a decrease in connectivity between parts of the brain, but the implications of those losses are still unknown. Findings also suggest that greater exposure to repetitive trauma is related to structural and performance deficits, and even decreases in brain volume, but it's still too soon to say if fighters are at a greater risk than non-fighters of suffering from CTE or other neurological disorders. When it comes to understanding the connection between MMA and CTE, Bernick told ESPN, the Cleveland Clinic has only "scratched the surface."
But Bernick did make recommendations yesterday on how the commission can better regulate and license combat sports events with fighter safety in mind. They include: the creation of a Fight Exposure Score (FES) to determine the potential risk faced by individual fighters and identify which fighters are at the highest risk of cognitive and structural impairment and need further evaluation; instrumented neurological testing using iPad software to test fighters' balance, memory, reaction time, and dynamic visual acuity before each fight; and a mandatory educational program for trainers, cornermen, and other ringside officials on the effects of concussions. The brain remains a dark and frightening place, especially for people who deal in brain damage for a living, but at last a little light is shining through.