UFC donates extra $1M to brain health research


The world’s biggest mixed-martial-arts promotion is adding to its contribution toward a long-running brain study.

The UFC is donating an extra $1 million to the Cleveland Clinic to help fund brain health research for the next five years, the promotion announced Thursday. The Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas has been working on the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study for 10 years and the UFC has been one of the study’s top contributors.

The research is being done to find out more about the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma and potential factors that could make certain athletes at a higher risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The UFC has contributed more than $2 million over three rounds of financial support. The Cleveland Clinic study is the largest one looking at pro athletes exposed to head trauma — and the first to include active and retired male and female fighters.

More than 100 current or former UFC fighters have taken part in the study, UFC COO Lawrence Epstein said. The study has led to more than 30 pieces of peer-reviewed research published in medical journals.

The ultimate goal, Epstein said, is to take the data gleaned in this study and bring it to athletic commissions in an effort to help inform prospective new policy. For instance, if a brain exam could be developed that determines if a fighter is at a higher risk of CTE, that is something commissions could consider adding to their requirements for licensing athletes.

“We want this type of analysis to be a key part of the regulation of combat sports,” Epstein said. … “This is not about diagnosing injury. This is about preventing injury from taking place.”

A key finding in the brain study was published in October: female fighters perform better in cognitive testing than men with similar experience level in combat sports and education. The study has also found, according to Dr. Charles Bernick, that boxers perform more poorly on cognitive tests than MMA fighters with the same amount of fights.

“There are a lot of reasons why that could be,” Dr. Aaron Ritter told ESPN. “It probably could be because MMA people don’t get as much head impacts.”

Other findings from the study include that repetitive head impact on brain structure can be seen within one year of participation and can be tracked over time, and certain proteins released from injured brain fibers actually leak out of the brain and can be measured in the blood. The evolution of brain imaging has been a major boon, according to Bernick.

CTE is still only diagnosable post-mortem in an autopsy, but one of the goals of this study is to develop new clinical criteria for traumatic encephalopathy syndrome (TES) that will allow for the diagnosis of living people with symptoms suggestive of CTE.

Along with the UFC, Bellator, Top Rank, Golden Boy and other combat sports promotions have also contributed financially to the Lou Ruvo Center study.

“I think the whole combat industry has really rallied, unlike other sports, to help us understand this issue of long-term head impacts,” Bernick said.

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