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Las Vegas doctors study brains of boxers, MMA fighters

Las Vegas doctors study brains of boxers, MMA fighters

By Molly Waldron. CREATED Apr 27, 2012

 Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Last year, the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health began studying boxers and MMA fighters.

They've already made some discoveries about what repetitive trauma can do to a person's brain and long-term memory.

Layla McCarter is confident when she talks about her skills in the ring.

"I don't hit that much," McCarter said. "I like to say I never get hit, but truthfully, every fighter gets hit."

Especially when they're first starting out. Layla says before she learned her craft, she took a lot of blows. And they had an impact on her.

"I used to spar with bigger fighters, and I noticed some symptoms," she said. "I started to slur my words."

Layla is pretty sure she doesn't have any long-term problems, but to be sure she signed up for Dr. Charles Bernick's study of fighters at the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

"What we're really trying to learn is how exposure to repetitive head trauma can affect the structure of the brain and its performance," Dr. Bernick said.

Doctors already know that 20 to 50 percent of fighters develop dementia or Parkinsons-like symptoms over time. What they're trying to figure out now is if that can be prevented.

"What we found was those that fought more than six years were already having a decline in size of certain areas of their brain, shrinking," Dr. Bernick said. "On the other hand, it was only those who fought more than 12 years that we could see their performance declining."

Although the study focuses on boxers and MMA fighters, Dr. Bernick believes what they can learn could have implications for other athletes and the general population.

"There's still a lot to learn," he says. "We're barely scratching the surface."

Dr. Bernick is not ready to say that boxers need to retire at a certain time, and he's not saying that the risks outweigh the benefits. Layla hopes he never does.

"I hope this doesn't affect boxing in a negative way," Layla says. "I hope it enhances the sport and makes the sport safer."

The Cleveland Clinic is working with 170 active fighters. They say they will continue to monitor them on a yearly basis and begin studying retired athletes as well.