Punch Drunk Memory

Sports concussion long term effects can result in degenerative brain disease

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Boxers and mixed martial arts (MMA) competitors take blows to the head often enough to hurt memory function. After a while the constant blows to the head turn into real brain damage that worsens even after they quit sports.

Researchers aim to find the point where repetitive sports related head trauma causes irreversible damage and even leads to a dementia like state.

Study points to brain volume loss as an indicator of future problems.

"Protect your head! Avoid activities with high risk for concussion."

Dr. Charles Bernick, MD., associate medical director at the Cleveland Clinic and American Academy of Neurology member, led a study to uncover how and why memory loss occurs for combat athletes.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can only be positively diagnosed with an autopsy. It is a degenerate brain disease where certain proteins build up in the brain from multiple impacts, and after a tipping point the proteins continue to build up even after retiring from the sport.

Symptoms look similar to dementia: memory loss, confusion, aggression, speech impairment and even coordination problems. CTE has presented in patients who have played high-impact and combative sports for decades.  CTE is commonly referred to as 'punch drunk' in retired boxers.

“While we already know that boxing and other combat sports are linked to brain damage, little is know about how this process develops and who may be on the path to developing CTE,” says Dr. Bernick.

Dr. Bernick’s study took 78 fighters, between the ages of 19-42, and divided them into two groups based on their years of fighting: less than nine years and nine years or more. The team of researchers ran computerized tests on their memories and speed for processing information, and volumetric MRI scans on their brains.

Not surprisingly, the guys who had fought the longest and were in the most fights per year showed more brain damage. They actually had less brain volume in three different areas.

The big question is: where’s the point of no return? Lots of people get a concussion or three in athletics and don’t develop protein buildup in their brains to the point of dementia. The fighters who were in the under nine years of fighting category demonstrated better memory and thinking skills than the nine years or more group, even after adjustments were made for age.

Dr. Bernick’s study concludes that there is a threshold where continued head trauma affects the ability to think, remember and communicate. Further studies will be necessary to determine exactly where that point is.

This study is part of the Emerging Science program at the American Academy of Neurology’s 64th Annual Meeting in New Orleans, April 21-28, 2012. The Lincy Foundation provided funding for this study, no conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 16, 2012
Last Updated:
April 18, 2012