UFC, the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization, today announced a five-year extension of its longstanding collaboration with Cleveland Clinic and its continued support of the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study.
This multi-year commitment, which is supported by a $1 million contribution to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, ensures that research will continue to help determine the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma and factors that put certain individuals at higher risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Since joining the landmark study in 2011, UFC has committed more than $2 million via three rounds of financial support.
Now entering its 10th year, this study – led by Cleveland Clinic’s Charles Bernick, M.D., and Aaron Ritter, M.D. – is the largest of professional athletes exposed to repetitive head trauma and the first to include retired and active male and female fighters concurrently.
“UFC is proud to continue its support of both Cleveland Clinic and the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study,” UFC Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Epstein said. “UFC has supported this study since its inception, and we take pride in standing at the forefront of helping set new standards for athlete health and safety in all sports. Dr. Bernick and Dr. Ritter are doing an amazing job, and we look forward to helping them advance their research.”
The Professional Athletes Brain Health Study (formerly the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study) was established in 2011 to examine the cumulative effects of repetitive concussive and sub-concussive impacts to the brain in a group of professional fighters. The study has since expanded to include athletes in other sports exposed to repetitive head impacts (RHI), including professional bull riders. Information from this project will help guide new policies and practices that can improve brain health in sports and others exposed to RHI in military or civilian populations.
“The support provided by UFC has been fundamental to the success of the study, allowing us to reach this 10-year milestone in our research,” said Dr. Bernick, founder and primary investigator of the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study. “Not only has their financial commitment helped to sustain the infrastructure needed for this ongoing project, the encouragement they have given fighters to participate and the expertise they have offered in regards to mixed martial arts has been invaluable.”
UFC’s commitment to aid in the funding of the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study is provided in conjunction with other organizations in the combat sports industry and facilitates ongoing progress in answering critical questions regarding the long-term effects of exposure to RHI that affect both athletes competing in sports and active-duty military personnel.
To date, the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study has enrolled more than 800 active and retired athletes. Participation is voluntary. Athletes in the study receive free, ongoing assessments of brain health and function, including MRI scans. Individual tests are repeated annually for a minimum of four years.
The longer an athlete is assessed, the more valuable information will be amassed. However, during the past 10 years, researchers have detected subtle effects of RHI on brain structure and proteins released in the blood following impact. These changes can be measured over time and may be early indicators of brain injury, bringing researchers one step closer to helping athletes proactively make informed decisions about their careers based on personal brain health data. Additionally, as CTE researchers nationwide prepare to begin clinical trials, the Repetitive Head Impact Composite Score developed from data in the study will be critical in determining the effectiveness of new therapies.
As the study embarks on the next decade of research, investigators will focus on social determinants to better understand how one’s environment impacts the onset of CTE pathology, as well as the role of neuroinflammation within the brain in the immediate aftermath of head trauma.
“Exposure to repetitive head trauma puts a person at risk for the development of cognitive changes that may occur years after an athlete has retired,” said Dr. Ritter, co-primary investigator of the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study. “The science coming out of the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study is clearly showing us that not all individuals experience cognitive changes and each individual may be affected in different ways.
“Our study is unique because we are attempting to look at all of these factors — whether they are genetic, inflammatory, based on the number of fights, time between fights, etc.— simultaneously to determine which are most important in keeping an athlete’s brain healthy. The key for the next 10 years is to discover which factors are most crucial in each individual. The Professional Athletes Brain Health Study is the largest and longest-lasting study to look at this issue. Without the support of the UFC, a study like this would never happen.”