Sparring could 'damage the brain' as study reveals boxers perform 52% worse on memory tests after just a nine minute session

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  • The boxers’ ‘brain-to-muscle communication’ was also down by 6%
  • This, along with their memory test results, was back to normal after 24 hours
  • ‘Transient brain changes’ are ‘reminiscent of effects seen following brain injury’ 

Boxing may 'damage the brain' with athletes doing 52% worse on memory tests after just nine minutes of sparring. It is unclear whether there is a 'safe threshold' for the sport (stock)

Boxing may ‘damage the brain’ with athletes doing 52% worse on memory tests after just nine minutes of sparring. It is unclear whether there is a ‘safe threshold’ for the sport (stock)

Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002

Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle died in 2002

Aaron Hernandez was a star tight end for the New England Patriots on a $41 million contract when he was arrested for double murder. in June 2013. Four years later, while serving life in prison, he took his own life. He was posthumously diagnosed with the worst case of CTE ever seen in a football player

Aaron Hernandez was a star tight end for the New England Patriots on a $41 million contract when he was arrested for double murder. in June 2013. Four years later, while serving life in prison, he took his own life. He was posthumously diagnosed with the worst case of CTE ever seen in a football player

This picture shows a scan of Hernandez's brain compared to that of a normal 27-year-old. It shows severe decay in the center of his brain from CTE

This picture shows a scan of Hernandez’s brain compared to that of a normal 27-year-old. It shows severe decay in the center of his brain from CTE

Hernandez was indicted in August 2013 (pictured). He was convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison in April 2015

Hernandez was indicted in August 2013 (pictured). He was convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison in April 2015

Sparring could damage the brain of boxers, research suggests. 

Scientists analysed 20 amateur boxers and Muay Thai fighters after they sparred for a total of nine minutes. 

One hour later, tests showed the boxers’ ‘brain-to-muscle communication’ was down by six per cent. 

They also performed 52 per cent worse on memory tests. Both of these were back to normal after 24 hours.

The researchers worry these ‘transient brain changes’ are ‘reminiscent of effects seen following brain injury’.

It is unclear whether there is a ‘safe threshold’ when it comes to sparring, the team at the University of Stirling added. 

The results come amid a wave of worrying evidence showing a link between blows to the head and dementia. 

‘Although transient, we found brain changes observed after sparring are reminiscent of effects seen following brain injury,’ lead author Dr Thomas Di Virgilio said.

‘Our findings are important because they show routine practices may have immediate effects on the brain.

‘It is not possible to say whether there is a “safe” threshold when it comes to the level of impact in sparring.

‘Further research is required to help sportspeople – and the academic community – fully understand the dangers posed by subconcussive impacts, routine in sport, and any measures that can be taken to mitigate against these risks.’ 

Concern is growing over the long-term health risks of traumatic brain injuries acquired during sport, the researchers wrote in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Major international trials have found repeated concussions can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which in turn can cause dementia. 

Former England and West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle (right) died in 2002.

He was only 59 but doctors said he had the brain of a 90-year-old after suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals with a history of head injury, often as a result of multiple concussions.

An inquest ruled Astle died from dementia caused by heading footballs – the first British professional footballer to be officially confirmed to have done so.

Astle, who was left unable to recognise his own children, once commented that heading a football was like heading ‘a bag of bricks’.

His family set up the Jeff Astle Foundation in 2015 in order to raise awareness of brain injury in sport. His daughter Dawn said ‘the game that he lived for killed him’.

Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham Hotspur during their double winning season of 1961, died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in 1993. He was 67.

His death has also been linked to heading the heavy, leather balls of the 1940s and 50s, along with fellow Tottenham players Dave Mackay, Peter Baker and Ron Henry. 

This has led to increased awareness over the potential dangers of head contact in sports like American football, boxing and rugby.

‘Heading’ a football has been found to raise markers of nerve damage, however, it unclear whether this causes brain damage, the Stirling researchers wrote.

They therefore turned to boxing, where a direct link between blows to the head and worse brain health is ‘well documented’.

‘For many years, a debate has taken place around the safety of boxing,’ Dr Di Virgilio said.

‘However, these discussions often focus on heavy blows inflicted during competitive fights.’ 

Major international trials have found that repeated concussions can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – which leads to dementia. 

This has led to increased awareness over the potential dangers of head contact in sports such as football, American football, boxing and rugby. 

But concussions do not cause long-term neurological disease – but tackles in American football may, a major new study found earlier this year.

The paper was published by the same Boston University team that diagnosed disgraced former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez with CTE last year.

It is the first to show how tackles directly cause the devastating brain disease, which causes aggression, dementia and suicidal thoughts. 

Testing mice, they showed repeated blows to the head trigger the wasting disease within 20 minutes, whether the mice suffered a concussion or not

Simply put: concussions are to CTE what a cough is to lung cancer. A cough does not predict lung cancer, and treating it does not prevent or cure lung cancer. It is the same for CTE.  

‘The concussion is the red herring here,’ lead author Dr Lee Goldstein, associate professor at Boston University, told Daily Mail Online.

‘This is the strongest evidence to date of a causal linkage between hits in football and CTE. We can probably prevent concussion.’

‘In contrast, we looked at subconcussive impacts – those that are below the concussion threshold – inflicted during training sessions.’ 

Twenty boxers completed three rounds of sparring, each lasting three minutes with a two minute rest in-between. 

Sparring is a form of training where boxers practice the moves without delivering heavy blows. 

Twenty one ‘controls’ took part in ‘mock sparring’, where they alternated moving around with hitting a pad.

All the participants’ brain-to-muscle communication was assessed via transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain.

They also completed a series of tests that measured their cognitive function.

Results revealed after one hour of sparring, the boxers showed impaired brain-to-muscle communication.  

Corticomotor inhibition, movement controlled by the cerebral cortex area of the brain, increased by six per cent. This is compared to a 0.08 per cent decrease in the control group. 

‘Athletes may be at greater risk of injury if the communications between the brain and muscles are impaired,’ Dr Di Virgilio said. 

The boxers also performed worse on memory tests, with a 52 per cent increase in the number of errors, compared to a 28 per cent decrease among the controls. 

Evidence shows heading a football, which has been described as being like a punch, can lead to CTE.

Former West Bromwich Albion footballer Jeff Astle had the degenerative brain disease before he died in 2002.

Ex-England captain Alan Shearer has undergone tests to see if he had CTE after heading the ball 100 times a day during his glittering career.

Such worrying links are widely established in boxing and rugby, and more recently scientists have delved into the effects of American Football. 

by Mia De Graaf, Health Editor

The neuroscientist who analyzed Aaron Hernandez’s brain confirmed that he suffered the worst case ever seen in someone so young, with severe damage to regions that affect memory, impulse control and behavior.

The 27-year-old former New England Patriots player killed himself in April 2017 while serving life in prison for murder.

In September, Dr Ann McKee of the CTE Center at Boston University posthumously diagnosed Hernandez with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a football-linked disease that causes dementia and aggression.

She formally presented her findings a month later, and confirmed that she had never encountered such extreme degradation in a young brain, pointing out areas of severe tissue damage and microbleeds likely caused by blows to the head.

They also found a variant of the APOE gene, which has been linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s, but the scientists emphasized that no gene could inflict the same damage as years of heavy impact from tackling.  

Dr McKee says she could not say for certain that Hernandez’s criminal and suicidal acts were a result of his severe case of CTE, nor whether other 27-year-old players could plausibly have the same pathology. But she says Hernandez suffered substantial damage to several important regions, including the frontal lobe.

‘In this age group, he’s clearly at the severe end of the spectrum,’ McKee said. 

‘There is a concern that we’re seeing accelerated disease in young athletes. Whether or not that’s because they’re playing more aggressively or if they’re starting at younger ages, we don’t know. But we are seeing ravages of this disease, in this specific example, of a young person.’ 

Hernandez was diagnosed with stage three out of four, with four being the most severe.

His brain scans reveal huge clumps of tau protein in Hernandez’s frontal lobes, and in the nerve cells around small blood vessels, a unique feature of CTE.

These proteins, also seen in dementia, disrupts the normal functioning of the brain, triggering aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, depression, memory loss and other cognitive changes. 

Dr McKee cautioned that she has not received many brains of players so young who played to such a high level as Aaron Hernandez, who started playing before the age of eight and was regarded as one of the NFL’s top tight ends.

The tests showed Hernandez had early brain atrophy and large perforations in the septum pellucidum, a central membrane which is essential to control behavior.

Hernandez’s brain scans revealed he had a variant of the APOE gene, which has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, a similar disease to CTE. However, CTE uniquely affects certain nerve cells which Alzheimer’s appears not to. 

The disgraced star had a $41 million NFL contract when he was arrested at his home in June 2013 and charged with the murder of a semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.

Lloyd was the boyfriend of Hernandez’s fiancee’s sister. He was found dead in an industrial park on June 17, 2013, riddled with bullets. Surveillance footage showed Hernandez at the scene an hour before, then arriving at home minutes after gunshots were fired. 

In April 2015, Hernandez was convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison.

While in prison, Hernandez was charged with another killing – a double murder committed by a drive-by shooting. But in April 2017, he was acquitted of both charges.

The next day, he took his own life. 

His family has since filed a lawsuit against the NFL and the Patriots on behalf of Hernandez’s four-year-old daughter Avielle, claiming the club and the league knew about the connections between football and CTE long before Hernandez was drafted.



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