Can the brain recover after boxers, MMA fighters stop fighting?

Boxers and mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters may see some recovery in their thinking and memory skills as well as brain structure after they stop fighting, according to a new study published in the September 14, 2022, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“Repetitive hits to the head increase the risk of long-term neurologic conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), cognitive and behavior problems and parkinsonism,” said study author Aaron Ritter, MD, of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Nevada. “However, we haven’t known what happens to people who have been fighting and then stop fighting. The good news is we saw some improvement in thinking and memory scores in these retired fighters.”

For the study, researchers identified 45 male retired fighters who had not competed in two years, with an average age of 32, including 22 boxers, 22 MMA fighters and one martial artist. They also identified 45 male active fighters, with an average age of 30, including 17 boxers, 27 mixed martial artists and one martial artist. The groups were matched for age, education, race, and number of fights at the beginning of the study.

All fighters had a professional fight within a year of the start of the study. However, retired fighters then went two years without any fights while active fighters continued to participate in professional fights.

Over three years, all fighters had brain scans and completed tests to see how well their brains were working at the both the beginning and the end of the study. Researchers also looked at participants’ fighting histories. Half of the participants also had blood tests for a biological marker of brain injury called neurofilament light chain, a component of nerve fibers that can be detected in the blood when the fibers are injured.

The participants also took tests to measure verbal memory, executive functioning, motor speed and processing speed.

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