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Right in the Head

Right in the Head
Brain Illustration by Scott Lien
Brain Illustration by Scott Lien

Lou Ruvo Center expands work on athletes’ brain health

Most Southern Nevadans know that the local Cleveland Clinic satellite, the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, works with professional fighters to study the link between concussion and diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Parkinson’s, and ALS. But even the most aware reader may not have followed specific developments that have broadened this work in the years since the Retired Professional Athletes Clinic opened — or the latest multisport collaboration, which could put Las Vegas on the map nationally.

“We have a chance to take a leadership role in this, and Las Vegas hasn’t been known for healthcare research,” says Charles Bernick, the clinic’s director, “so it’s an exciting opportunity.”

Here’s an explainer.

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The Ruvo Center started its Professional Fighters Brain Health study in 2011 to track the brain function of active and retired boxers and mixed-martial arts fighters.

Since then, 815 fighters have enrolled in the study.

Its goal is to measure the cumulative neurological effects of repeated head injury, so that doctors can identify and predict these effects early on.

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The center also participates in a National Institutes of Health study of retired professional football players and runs the Professional Athletes Clinic to care for people from all contact sports who are experiencing declines in memory and brain function.



Early on, the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study focused, as the name suggests, on fighters, active and retired.

Major findings up to now include a relationship between the number of fights a person has been in and a shrinkage in certain brain areas.

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The clinic recently added professional rodeo riders to the study. “It’s a group that’s not as visible to most people, but by definition are being thrown off (of their steeds) and hitting the ground,” Bernick says.

In early February, his team submitted a paper on its longitudinal MRI findings for publication in an academic journal. (A longitudinal study focuses on the same factors or variables over time.)



In early 2018, the clinic started the Professional Sports Brain Health Coalition. “Currently each sport takes care of their own, but there are common issues, and one is brain health and concussion,” Bernick says.

The goal is to bring together diverse professional organizations to collaborate on brain health and the effects of head trauma across a range of sports.

Ten organizations are involved: UFC, Professional Bull Riders, Oakland Raiders, Vegas Golden Knights, Top Rank (boxing), NFL Alumni, UNLV, Cirque du Soleil, South Point Hotel & Casino, and United Way.

The coalition’s work will be divided into three areas: education, research, and advocacy. Past meetings have dealt with conception and organization. The actual work is set to begin at a meeting this month.


“This is a big deal in the sense that there’s no other city doing this with multiple sports teams,” Bernick says. “And it’s in Las Vegas, where you can make that happen.”

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.