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UFC extends Cleveland Clinic support; study bears down on long-term brain health

LAS VEGAS – UFC officials have committed to supporting Cleveland Clinic’s Professional Athletes Brain Health Study for another five years, upping their total financial commitment to the cause to $3 million, in hopes the research may help protect athletes’ from long-term brain trauma in the very near future.

The promotion first partnered with the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in 2011 and has now committed $1 million to the effort during each of three consecutive five-year partnerships with the study, which is led by the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Charles Bernick and Dr. Aaron Ritter.

“We have been partnered with the Cleveland Clinic now for a decade, and we’re proud that we’ve already committed more than $2 million in funding the study,” UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein told MMA Junkie. “This entire relationship the UFC, our athletes, and the entire Cleveland Clinic have has frankly become central to the UFC and really intertwined with the DNA of our organization.

“Over the last 10 years, a tremendous amount of data has been generated as a result of the studies that have been done. That data has been used in 31, to date, peer-reviewed articles and journals about the findings from this first-of-its-kind study. From the UFC standpoint, we’re incredibly proud to have been a part of this up to date, and we’re even more proud to be committing for another five years.”

In the 10 years since the study’s inception, more than 800 active and retired athletes across MMA, boxing, traditional martial arts, rodeo and more have volunteered for the study, which looks at cognitive abilities over time, but also includes MRI scans and other evaluations of brain health. Officials said more than 100 active and retired UFC athletes have participated thus far.

Dr. Bernick said some of the most exciting developments thus far include an increased ability to utilize genetic markers to predict athletes that may be in danger of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – at one time known as pugilistic dementia – a potentially devastating degenerative disease found to be caused by repetitive brain trauma.

“It’s one of the questions that we hope we can help answer for combat sports in the short run but also to be applied to sports in general, as well as the military and anybody exposed to head trauma, in general,” Dr. Bernick said. “The real value of the study is what we can learn by following individuals over time. I think we’ve already picked up a lot of interesting findings that are starting to change how we’re thinking about the disease’s process.

“I think the biggest findings have been over imaging – how we can use MRI scans and potentially other ways to image the aggregates involved in chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is called tau – and how these images can identify or pick up changes, even over several years’ periods in some individuals, yet not others. Other people may be exposed the same amount and yet not have these changes, so being able to detect those that are more likely to have long-term changes is really becoming an important part of the study.”

Epstein said that type of predictive ability has become a key focus for the UFC, which doesn’t simply hope to understand how brain injury affects athletes in combat sports but begins to identify ways to keep it from manifesting.

“What we’re looking for is we want this type of analysis to become a fundamental part of the regulation of combat sports,” Epstein said. “So for example, in order to get licensed as a boxer and MMA athlete in virtually every state, you have to take an eye exam. If that eye exam reveals a detached retina, you can’t fight. We want to get to the same place in respect to the brain, where if there’s a genetic marker or some other evidence which indicates somebody is predisposed toward brain injury or there are early indications before someone starts presenting a cognitive deficit that we can see, we can get the people out of the sport before they get injured.

“This is not about diagnosing people afterwards. This is about preventing injury from taking place in the first place.”

Dr. Ritter explained that developing such an ability is becoming more and more possible each day but that the study is hoping to enlist more volunteers – including more women, more retired athletes, and more athletes willing to donate their brains to study after death – to continue the work of what the Cleveland Clinic calls “the largest longitudinal study of any sport involving head impacts.”

“Not everyone that fights goes on to develop significant cognitive impairment, and that gives us hope,” Dr. Ritter said. “We’re looking for the things that distinguish those at risk from those that are going to develop problems. So our hope is to make these sports as safe as possible.”

Of course, there will always be an inherent risk in any type of combat sport, and MMA is no different. Still, Dr. Bernick and Dr. Ritter believe the knowledge that has been gained over the first decade of the study – and, they hope, for decades to come – will prove invaluable to the understanding of the diagnosis and treatment of damage caused by repetitive head impacts. The doctors also believe that by the end of this next five-year period, they may be able to provide significant data to enrolled athletes that may “guide an individual on their risk” of developing long-term brain trauma through continued participation in the sport.

Epstein said the UFC intends to provide as much assistance as possible and hopes the promotion’s athletes have that same belief.

“We’ve encouraged our athletes from Day 1 to be a part of this study, and that continues on, frankly, even after they’ve decided not to compete,” Epstein said. “We’ll continue, on our end, to participate in the study because we want to provide current athletes with as much information as possible so they can make informed decisions about their own health.

“At the end of the day, the health and safety of our athletes is mission No. 1. You’re seeing it right now with our COVID protocols, and we have the lowest rate of positivity in the entire sports and entertainment industry. That’s because we take health and safety, not just seriously – it’s our No. 1 priority – so this is just a continuation of that philosophy.”

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