CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - It's the largest study of its kind on brain health, with about 700 UFC fighters and boxers, active and retired, being tracked. Doctors are trying to see if certain athletes are more at risk for developing chronic neurological conditions. So far, the study has already led to changes for one major sports organization.
"If I looked left or right, real quick, the whole room would be blurry."
UFC fighter Cody Garbrandt doesn't remember the blow that did it, but a few years ago, he spent four months in rehab for brain trauma. He's now healed and has had no reservations about getting back to fighting.
"No fear, you can't have fear in my profession."
But will there be lasting effects? That question being investigated by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic.
"How can we make things safer, how can we protect brain function or at least detect changes that are occurring early," said Dr. Charles Bernick, Associate Director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
Since 2011, once a year athletes have had MRI scans and C3 screenings using an iPad. The app, developed by the Clinic, tests brain activities with balance and reaction times. Dr. Bernick has been monitoring the findings and just gave an update.
"Not everyone who's exposed to head trauma gets brain damage and that's one of the questions we're trying to understand, who is at risk, is it the amount of blows you get, is it genetics are there lifestyle factors?" he said.
Dr. Bernick says certain parts of the brain are more vulnerable to injury. By monitoring that, doctors may be able to determine if brain damage is occurring. The study has prompted the Nevada Athletic Commission to now screen all fighters with these C3 tests.
"This is the first time we know of in sports that a regulatory agency is actually going to follow brain function over time, not just return to play issues," said Dr. Bernick.
"I like the way the sport is taking it more seriously," said Forrest Griffin, retired UFC Fighter, who is also part of the study.
Griffin believes the study could help protect current fighters like Garbrandt and future generations of athletes by putting even more safeguards into place.
"A protocol where fighters could be tested and say hey, you can't qualify to fight, you're at a point where there might be irreparable brain damage, as opposed to OK, you can keep contending to fight," says Griffin.
Dr. Bernick thinks the research may also lead to breakthroughs with treatment. He explains that a protein that we all have in our brain, called tau, builds up abnormally in patients with the most severe brain injuries. He thinks that damages cells.
"There may be drugs that can remove tau, they're not on the market yet, all these are investigational, but if they show a benefit then we may have a tool that can actually prevent or delay the onset of CTE in certain individuals that are vulnerable," he said.
CTE stands for Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is degenerative disease usually seen in people with a history of concussions and other forms of brain injuries.
The study is ongoing. The tests are expected to be repeated annually on the athletes for a minimum of four years.
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