Study of Fighters Shows Brain Changes Are Seen Before Symptoms
Detectable changes in the brain precede the appearance of symptoms like memory loss or other changes in cognitive function resulting from repeated blows to the head, according to Dr. Charles Bernick, who presided over the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study. The physical changes are a reduction in size in the hippocampus and thalamus of the brains of fighters with more than six years in the ring. These parts of the brain deal with such functions as memory and alertness. While those who had fought for more than six years did not exhibit any declines in cognitive function, fighters with more than 12 years in the ring did. Thus, Dr. Bernick’s group concluded, the lag between detectability and physical symptoms probably occurs sometime during those six years.
The potential significance goes well beyond the health of boxers. The idea that an M.R.I. could help identify a degenerative brain disorder before a patient reports cognitive problems could help a broad range of people, from young athletes and combat soldiers to others who have been subjected to repeated blows to the head, neurologists say. There may also be implications for understanding Alzheimer’s and other diseases among otherwise healthy elderly people.