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The punches and kicks to the head that bring cheers to boxing and MMA fans can leave the recipients with chronic brain injuries.
Dr. Charles Bernick of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health studies the brains of professional fighters with the goals of making combat sports less dangerous and improving treatment for those who are injured.
Six years into his research, Bernick’s latest findings show blood tests may assist in identification of those with long-term brain injuries before symptoms appear.
“We’ve seen with active fighters several of these markers seem to increase over time,” Bernick said.
He said a chemical released by injured brains leaves markers in the blood that could one day be used in the diagnosis of brain injuries. Those afflicted could then be directed to treatment and to cease involvement in sports or vocations, such as combat military, where head trauma can occur.
Bernick did caution that a lot more study needs to be done into who are impacted by those chemicals and whether they indicate permanent brain damage or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is caused by repeated blows to the head.
People who develop CTE can lose brain function even after they stop the activities that injured them in the first place. Right now, doctors don't know why some people are more vulnerable to developing CTE and others are not.
"This is the real mystery that we have to unravel is, why are some people vulnerable for this disease," Bernick said. He said part of the mission of the center is to answer that question.
Once each year, participants in Bernick's studies come to the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center in the Las Vegas Medical District for a battery of brain and general health tests. Most of those taking part are active professional boxers and MMA fighters.
Bernick said the research could eventually lead to safer sports.
“You can see even with football how changes – just rule changes – may reduce the amount of impact to the brain which may reduce your risk of long-term effects,” he said.
Dr. Charles Bernick, brain researcher, Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health