This Is Your Brain On Sports

My mother in law was over once while I was channel surfing and when I came to rest on a boxing match, said “Why would anyone want to watch this kind of brutality?” Sheepishly, I turned the channel.

There really is something a bit ridiculous about watching dudes punch each other in the head for fun. “But other sports are violent, too!” is usually my limp defense. Doesn’t even address the charge. If there was a way to limit the damage without really disrupting the sport, I’d support it.

BLH has a piece discussing some recent concussion research. Here’s the gist:

Preliminary results from a new brain study suggest that there might be a point of no return for some combatants. Essentially, there becomes a point where the brain can no longer repair itself and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) becomes inevitable. The symptoms of CTE include personality changes and general cognitive difficulties, much like Alzheimer’s disease.

So boxing is probably the most concussive of sports and it’s pretty easy, and accurate, to point the finger at that community first. But remember Ted Johnson, the subject of the NYT article about concussions in the NFL?

Asked for a prognosis of Mr. Johnson’s future, Dr. Cantu, the chief of neurosurgery and director of sports medicine at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., said: ”Ted already shows the mild cognitive impairment that is characteristic of early Alzheimer’s disease. The majority of those symptoms relentlessly progress over time. It could be that at the time he’s in his 50s, he could have severe Alzheimer’s symptoms.”

Ted has CTE. And Sidney Crosby missing almost a whole season’s worth of hockey over two years for “concussion-like symtoms”? Here’s an important part of the research cited by this article and BLH:

As part of an ongoing study on brain health, the researchers divided 109 licensed boxers and mixed martial artists into three groups: those who had fought for less than six years, six to 12 years or more than 12 years. Their average age was about 29.

Participants underwent MRI scans to measure their brain volume and tests of their thinking and memory.

“In those that fought less than six years, we didn’t find any changes,” Bernick said. For that group, he said, “the more you fought didn’t seem to make any differences in the size of brain structure or their performance on some of the tests like reaction time.”

But for the other two groups of boxers and combat athletes, “the greater number of fights, the sizes of certain volumes of the brain were decreasing,” he said. “But, it was only in those that fought more than 12 years that we could detect the changes in performance in reaction time and processing speed.”

Concussive sports are for the young only. Most people think of athletes playing in a sport until their reactions slow, their strength wanes and they loose their speed.

The reality is that most athletes are ‘bubble’ players who only barely make their teams and retire after a season or two. Only the best of the best, who are overrepresented in our minds and on the sports pages, play until their bodies tell them to stop. And the reality for them is that the brain may be the first thing to go.

Forcing retirement from too many concussions would be a tragedy for the player and fans. Imagine if Crosby was forced to retire at age 23? Things like this will begin to happen. And rightly so.

It’s the concussion awareness era. If it’s true that the damage can be identified early enough to limit long term problems by forcing retirement then that’s what should happen.

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