Dr. Charles Bernick fights for brain health at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

Editor’s Note: Robin is working from the cooler climes of La Jolla near San Diego for the remainder of this hot month in advance of our newly designed website launching shortly. We’ll continue with our guest columnists until his return for Labor Day Weekend.

Today, one of our guest columns is by Dr. Charles Bernick, associate director of The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Dr. Bernick is an unknown hero for the boxers and UFC fighters who keep Las Vegas at the center of the sports world.

Dr. Bernick is lead researcher of “The Professional Fighters Brain Health Study,” which measures the effects of long-term head trauma in combat sports. The goal is to make sports safer, and the study uses novel imaging never before used in the fight profession.

Most recently, Nevada passed a law saying all pro fighters must go through C3 testing used in the study before participating in a fight. Having watched Saturday’s grueling UFC 202 in The Octagon between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, this guest column is as relevant as ever.

By Dr. Charles Bernick

The recent passing of Muhammed Ali reminds us of the important role Las Vegas has played in boxing. However, along with being known as The Fight Capital of the World, researchers in Las Vegas are taking a leadership role in the effort to better understand long-term effects of repetitive head trauma and improve the safety of combat sports.

Combining the resources of The Cleveland Clinic, including some of the most advanced brain-imaging equipment, with access in Las Vegas to many professional fighters has allowed us to conduct an internationally recognized study, “The Professional Fighters Brain Health Study.”

One might wonder if it is necessary to do a study to learn that repeated blows to the head are not good for the brain. With the recent attention over Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has been fostered by stories of retired NFL players and movies such as CONCUSSION, it seems that long-term neurological damage is inevitable for those who’ve suffered multiple concussions. However, we know that not everyone exposed to head trauma will have continuing brain injury.

CTE is thought to be a progressive degenerative brain disease found not only in athletes, but also military veterans and civilians with a history of repetitive head trauma. CTE causes an abnormal buildup of a protein, Tau, in the brain, which can then lead to memory loss, confusion, mood and behavioral changes, Parkinsonism and dementia.

Unfortunately, because it can only be diagnosed after death, there is much we don’t know about CTE. How many concussions or blows to the head does it take before CTE develops? Is it the number or severity of the blows to the head that is important in causing CTE? Why do some athletes develop CTE while others do not?

These are questions we hope to answer with “PFBHS.” The study is the first of its kind to measure long-term effects of repetitive head trauma in combat sports. We are trying to detect the earliest and most subtle signs of brain injury in athletes exposed to head trauma, as well as determine which individuals might be more likely to develop chronic neurological disorders.

Now in our sixth year, we have 650 fighters enrolled and are continuing to monitor the brains of these athletes over time. We are using new PET Tau and MRI imaging that has never been used on professional fighters. Additionally, because we are using retired and active fighters, we are able to study the spectrum of repetitive head trauma.

One of the most encouraging experiences we’ve had thus far is the amount of support we’ve received from combat sports. Local companies such as UFC and Top Rank Boxing, along with Haymon Boxing, Viacom’s Bellator MMA and Golden Boy Promotions, have been leaders in supporting improved safety. Donations like these are crucial in allowing the study to continue over many years.

The study is already yielding practical results. The Nevada State Athletic Commission will soon require fighters licensed in Nevada to take part in regular brain health testing, making it the first sport to track brain health over an athlete’s career. What we’re thrilled about is that the commission will assess fighters using the C3 app, which was developed by The Cleveland Clinic and is used in “PFBHS.”

It should be emphasized that a goal of the study is to make combat sports safer. However, perhaps more importantly, the hope is that what we learn from professional fighters can be applied to others who have experienced repeated head trauma and concussions.

Be sure to check out our other guest column today from Las Vegas doctor Lynn Kowalski, a gynecologic oncologist who writes about FemiLift, a laser treatment that benefits women after childbirth. Robin also takes a look at Steve Wynn’s incredible $4.2 billion gamble in Macau with the opening of his Wynn Palace ahead of properties by rivals Sands and MGM Resorts.

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