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Video: John McCain, Lorenzo Fertitta, Jon Jones, Bernard Hopkins, and More Boxing/MMA Figures Unite to Support the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study

(Props: Senator Reid)

There are few occasions where you could get executives from the UFC, Bellator, Golden Boy, and Top Rank in the same room without a full-scale brawl breaking out. But today in Washington, DC, an unprecedented congregation of combat-sports power players joined forces to support a common cause — the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, which is being conducted by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

According to a press release distributed today, the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study was launched in April 2011, and is “focused on developing methods to detect the earliest and most subtle signs of brain injury in those exposed to head trauma, as well as determining which individuals may be more likely to develop chronic neurological disorders.” You can read a little more about the Cleveland Clinic’s work here.

Senators and lifelong boxing-lovers Harry Reid (D-NV) and John McCain (R-AZ) were keynote speakers at today’s press-conference, which you can watch above in its entirety. The list of speakers also included UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones, Spike TV President Kevin Kay, Bellator lightweight star Michael Chandler, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, Top Rank President Todd duBoef, and boxing legend Bernard Hopkins. Collectively, the combat sports promotions in attendance pledged $600,000 to help the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study continue its research for another year. As the press-release explains:

To date, the study has enrolled nearly 400 active and retired fighters with the goal of evaluating 625 by its completion. Participation is completely voluntary, and fighters in the study receive free, ongoing assessments of their brain health and brain function, including MRI scans. Individual tests will be repeated annually for at least four years…

Studies suggest a percentage of professional fighters have a higher risk of developing long-term conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), depression and other neurological and neuropsychiatric problems, often at a young age. Currently, there is no way to determine if a fighter has sustained cumulative brain damage from head trauma; the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is working toward identifying risk factors in these individuals.

Researchers measure changes in brain volume, nerve fiber injury and connectivity, and blood flow via MRI scans. Any changes seen on the participant’s MRI will be correlated with their performance on assessments of cognition, behavior, balance and speech. For fighters who demonstrate a relationship between MRI findings and clinical decline, researchers hope to determine whether there are other factors such as genetics, lifestyle characteristics or the amount or type of exposure to head trauma that make them more susceptible to injury.

Preliminary results from the study have already been published or presented at a number of national meetings. Among the promising findings, the study detected changes in the volume of specific brain regions. The connections between certain areas of the brain were detected by MRI scanning in some individuals within as little as a one-year period, suggesting that MRI measures may turn out to be a useful method of tracking brain changes over time in those exposed to head trauma.

Moreover, the study found that exposure to head trauma – using the Composite Index, a formula that includes number of fights, years of fighting and fights per year – correlates with brain volume and cognitive performance. Those with a higher score on the Composite Index are more likely to score lower on cognitive testing. Pending validation over time, this may be a screening tool to identify fighters at higher risk of brain injury.

“We have made great progress in the study so far, and we are continuing to work toward understanding why certain individuals sustain long-term brain injury from repeated head trauma and how we can detect changes early to protect those individuals,” said Charles Bernick, M.D., Associate Medical Director at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and principle investigator on the study. “With the support of the fighting community, our goal is to use this information to improve safety in these sports for generations to come.”

According to Lorenzo Fertitta:

Nothing is more important to the UFC than the health and safety of our athletes. As the world’s premier MMA organization we have consistently lived up to that commitment to our fighters and we always will. UFC was the first – and remains the only – combat sports organization to provide our athletes with accident insurance coverage for training-related injuries. Today’s announcement is a no-brainer for us, as we continue our commitment to athlete safety. We are proud to join with these other prominent promoters – our colleague and competitors – to support the Cleveland Clinic’s brain health study.

We are encouraged by the early results of the study and we look forward to the final findings of the Lou Ruvo Center’s research, knowing that they will benefit our athletes, as well as athletes from many other sports. Finally, the support shown by Senators Reid and McCain, and many of their colleagues, cannot go unnoticed. They have been true leaders and we thank them on behalf of the UFC, our athletes and our fans.”

And finally, the best photo-op of the day:

(Props: JonnyBones on Instagram)

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