In the same city where some of the most significant bouts of the past 50 years have taken place, a new fight is beginning that could change the future of contact sports.
The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has launched a study aimed at reducing traumatic head injuries and brain diseases sometimes suffered by fighters. The research centers on detecting changes in fighters’ brains over a four-year span through top-of-the-line MRI technology and cognitive testing.
The hope is that the results could enable doctors to identify and treat combatants at a heightened risk for such diseases as pugilistic dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
“For fighters, there’s a definite and immediate benefit,” said Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. “But this is something that goes beyond the sport of boxing and beyond sports as a whole. It’s a major coup for our community.”
Researchers are 10 months into the study, which gives boxers and mixed martial artists free access to tests they need to receive a fighting license and asks them to return annually.
“It’s our responsibility to inform fighters where they stand and help their judgment,” said Dr. Charles Bernick, a Ruvo Center neurologist serving as the chief researcher on the project. “At this point, we don’t have anything to tell people. That’s got to change, particularly in this day and age with this technology.”
The Ruvo Center’s goal is to have 600 fighters signed up within four years. They’re ahead of schedule, on pace for about 170 in the first year.
Overwhelming support from the Nevada State Athletic Commission and perhaps the three most powerful fight promoters in the world — Top Rank Boxing, Golden Boy Promotions and the UFC — has gone a long way in attracting participants.
Kizer said the commission suggested the study to every fighter seeking a license in Nevada.
“The work we’re doing now sets the stage to go after larger funding and expand the project,” Bernick said. “What we want to do is look at other things with this — blood, genetics and anything that can help us understand why some people are prone to get these injuries and others are not.”
“If we can detect changes in the brain early, before significant symptoms and intervene, the hope is we can prevent long-term problems,” Bernick continued. “That’s really what it comes down to. We’re not trying to get rid of a sport. We’re trying to identify people who may be starting to have brain damage.”
“You may not be a fight fan, but that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from this,” said Kizer. “Some of this stuff could help any head injury. It could help someone who gets in a car wreck one day. In addition, it might even lead to dementia or Parkinson’s advances.”