Study Looks At Boxer and MMA Fighter Brain Health By Weight Class

Adding to this site’s database of combat sports safety studies, a recent study was published in the Journal Neurology looking at the relationship between fighter brain health and weight class.

In the recent study, titled Effect of Professional Fighters’ Weight Class on Regional Brain Volume, Cognition, and Other Neuropsychiatric Outcomes, the authors looked at data from the athletes participating in the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study. MRI data from 104 MMA fighters and 53 boxers were compared. The authors broke the fighters down into three weight categories to see if there was a relationship between fighter weight class and brain health. The results were scattered with the heavier fighters losing more brain volume year over year than the lighter fighters. They also showed greater yearly reduction in cognitive performance year over year.

The lighter fighters, however, suffered greater reductions in regional brain volume on a per-fight basis.

The authors speculated that weight cutting may play a role in greater per fight brain volume reduction in lighter fighters opining as follows “Although more research is needed, greater per-fight decrements in lightweights may be related to practices of weight-cutting, which may increase vulnerability to neurodegeneration post-TBI. Observed decrements associated with weight class may result in progressive impairments in fighter performance, suggesting interventions mitigating the burden of TBI in professional fighters may both improve brain health and increase professional longevity.

The full abstract reads as follows:

Abstract

Objective To evaluate the relationship between professional fighter weight class and neuropsychiatric outcomes.

Background Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a common source of functional impairment among athletes, military personnel, and the general population. Professional fighters in both boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) are at particular risk for repetitive TBI and may provide valuable insight into both the pathophysiology of TBI and its consequences. Currently, effects of fighter weight class on brain volumetrics (regional and total) and functional outcomes are unknown.

Design/Methods n = 53 boxers and n = 103 MMA fighters participating in the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study (PRBHS) underwent volumetric magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and neuropsychological testing. Fighters were divided into lightweight (=139.9 lb), middleweight (140.0–178.5 lb), and heavyweight (>178.5 lb).

Results Compared with lightweight fighters, heavyweights displayed greater yearly reductions in regional brain volume (boxers: bilateral thalami; MMA: left thalamus, right putamen) and functional performance (boxers: processing speed, simple and choice reaction; MMA: Trails A and B tests). Lightweights suffered greater reductions in regional brain volume on a per-fight basis (boxers: left thalamus; MMA: right putamen). Heavyweight fighters bore greater yearly burden of regional brain volume and functional decrements, possibly related to differing fight dynamics and force of strikes in this division. Lightweights demonstrated greater volumetric decrements on a per-fight basis.

Conclusions Although more research is needed, greater per-fight decrements in lightweights may be related to practices of weight-cutting, which may increase vulnerability to neurodegeneration post-TBI. Observed decrements associated with weight class may result in progressive impairments in fighter performance, suggesting interventions mitigating the burden of TBI in professional fighters may both improve brain health and increase professional longevity.


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