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How Can MRI Predict Brain Injuries in Professional Fighters

Six months after his death, pathologists determined Jordan Parsons to be the first MMA fighter to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Parsons wasn’t an outlier; many boxers and mixed martial arts fighters sustain long-term brain injuries, which can result in behavioral and personality changes. Although CTE develops over years after repeated injuries, a new study has discovered a way to use MRI techniques to identify and monitor mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) in professional fighters.

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas used T1-weighted MRI and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to examine the cerebral and cerebellar gray matter and temporal-occipital white matter tracts and forceps major. They were able to identify imaging biomarkers in MRI in order to predict if a fighter will suffer from long-term brain injuries.

A group of 273 male fighters were analyzed in the study. Researchers used neuropsychological testing that compared cognitive performance with a series of tests, including processing speed and psychomotor speed. They determined that fighters who scored at least two standard deviations below the mean were considered impaired fighters. Out of this group, 91 were categorized as impaired fighters and 182 were classified as unimpaired.

The report ultimately found seven imaging biomarkers are associated with cognitive impairment as a result of repetitive head trauma, including: fractional anisotropy of the forceps major, fractional anisotropy of left inferior longitudinal fasciculus, left cerebellum white matter volume, right cortical volume, left thalamus volume, right pallidum volume, and right rostral anterior cingulate thickness.

“Our findings suggest that the imaging biomarkers found to be associated with cognition due to repetitive head trauma interact in a multivariate manner,” write the researchers. “The entire set of imaging biomarkers must be investigated simultaneously by using a multivariate analysis to track progression of brain injury due to repetitive head trauma.”

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