Mixed martial arts fights associated with changes in brain structure

The football gridiron and boxing ring are now considered danger zones for the brain, with repeated blows to the head causing long-term damage to some athletes.

The same could also be true for octagon MMA, according to a new study.

The more mixed martial arts participants train, the more likely they are to develop changes in brain structure that have been linked to brain damage, researchers reported Saturday at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, in New Orleans and online.

These changes, called white matter hyperintensities, “indicate that the white matter has changed,” said lead researcher Aaron Esagoff, a student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “It’s more or less damage. It’s not how it’s supposed to be.”

During sparring, people always get kicked in the head, which could indirectly lead to these white matter hyperintensities and damage, he said.

However, the results are mixed.

The researchers also found that more MMA sparring in practice is also associated with an increase in the size of the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain associated with movement, learning, memory, reward, and emotion.

So the blows to the head a person receives during training may cause damage to the white matter of their brain, but the training also serves to protect other parts of their brain, Esagoff concluded.

“It may be that the people who train the most are better able to avoid the big impacts and the big injuries that you can sustain in a fight, which would lead to your caudate becoming much smaller,” he said. he declares.

For the study, Esagoff and his colleagues analyzed data from 92 active professional MMA fighters. In MMA, fighters train using kicks and punches, but they also use wrestling moves like grappling.

The researchers focused on how much fighters practice because that’s when they spend most of their time in the ring, Esagoff said.

“Fighters only fight a few times a year and only for a certain amount of time, less than an hour, say, but they spend hundreds of hours a year training,” he said. “And so the health effects of training are going to be really significant.”

During the study period, MMA fighters participated in nine professional bouts on average, but engaged in 10 training rounds each week.

The fighters underwent MRI scans as part of the study, and these scans were compared to the amount of training each fighter did.

The number of fights per week was associated with more changes in white matter, but also with a larger caudate nucleus, the researchers found.

Esagoff cautioned that the study was limited, in that MRIs were only taken at two points in time.

“We weren’t able to track them over time to be able to see the effects on each individual,” he said. “So in the future, to better understand the effects of sparring on the brain, we definitely want to do it longer term.”

But the study shows there’s more to learn about the effects of MMA fighting on the brain, said Dr. Howard Liu, chairman of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

“What’s important here, just like we’re looking at other organizations like the NFL and other areas where there’s clearly traumatic brain injury, is that we really make sure we look after the well-being of the athletes,” Liu said.

Results presented at medical meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The Cleveland Clinic has more information on sports-related brain injuries.

Copyright © 2022 Health Day. All rights reserved.

Ida M. Morgan