Recent Developments in Combat Sports Brain Injury Studies

Recently the Journal of Athletic Enhancement released a first of its kind study examining the cognitive performance on neuropsychological testing of MMA athletes.

The study, authored by Christopher Heath and Jennifer Callahan, conducted a series of cognitive performance tests on 28 MMA athletes and a control group of 28 non MMA athletes.

The MMA athletes “reported training an average of 2.6 days per week”.   The participants sparred “approximately 109 minutes each week“. 29% of these participants reported previously experiencing a knockout with almost half of the group reporting a previous TKO.  The mean age for the athletes was 28.9 years.

The control athletes were non MMA fighters who “participate in exercise regimens that do not involve repeated head trauma” such as submission wrestling or high intensity interval training.

The study sought to see if the MMA athletes would differ in neuropsycholigical functioning compared to the control group.  No meaningful differences were found with the authors concluding that “the neurocognitive performance of MMA athletes was indistinguishable from control athletes not regularly exposed to repeated head trauma“.

The risk of head trauma in MMA, as with any full contact sport, remains real and studies such as this should not be misinterpreted to suggest that MMA is not without real risks.  The study points out its limitations noting that additional research is warranted particularly focusing on a larger sample and breaking down further factors such as intensity and frequency of sparring.  That said, the study’s conclusion that “participation in the growing sport of MMA by a typical athlete may not pose significant – or at least unique – neuropsychological risk” compared to other contact sports is worth noting by stakeholders studying these issues.

Findings such as this must be tempered by other studies such as the Cleveland Clinic’s ongoing longitudinal “Professional Fighters Brain Health Study” which has released the following initial findings:

  • Across an average of all data collected, there is a relationship between number of fights and decline in the volume of certain areas of the brain
  • Changes in brain volume are not seen until after approximately five years of professional fighting and not all fighters exhibit such changes
  • The number of professional fights and knock outs are correlated with loss of fibers that course across the brain, as well as the connectivity between different areas of the brain as seen on MRI brain imaging. The implications of these findings are currently unknown; only long-term follow-up will determine if they predict neurological decline.

The full article can be found here – Assessment of Cognitive Functioning in Mixed Martial Arts Athletes

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