(Reuters) - Boxing is surging as evidenced by the wildly lucrative Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao megafight and return of bouts to network TV, and the revitalization may lead to better protection for fighters in the ring.
Dr. Charles Bernick of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas recently announced an agreement to add fighters from the Premier Boxing Champions Series to his research study.
The Professional Fighters' Study is examining more than 500 fighters to learn more about damage done in their violent profession and the risk factors for individuals.
"The study is aimed at trying to understand the long term effects of repetitive head trauma," Bernick told Reuters in an interview. "And what are the risk factors? Not everybody who takes repetitive hits to the head develops problems.
"How do we diagnose it, how do we recognize it early, can we predict who is going to go on to have long-term consequences and ultimately what can we do to make all these sports and activities safer?"
Later in life, boxers have shown a propensity to develop brain disease and symptoms of other neurological conditions.
Muhammad Ali, the face of boxing for half a century, suffers from Parkinson's disease, which some in the medical world say is connected to his years in the ring. Joe Louis exhibited dementia late in life and Sugar Ray Robinson developed Alzheimer's.
From January 1960 to August 2011 there were 488 boxing-related deaths, with 66 percent attributed to head, brain or neck injuries, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons said, citing the Journal for Combative Sport.
"We’ve recruited both active and retired fighters, and these are boxers and MMA fighters, along with a control group that have not been exposed to head trauma but are pretty much the same age and education," Bernick said.
"Each year they get a battery of tests, they get imaging of the brain through MRI scanning and we’re using the most sophisticated techniques we have now to look at the brain, their memory, their reaction time, their processing speed.
"We get a speech sample from each of the participants. We get questionnaires on their behavior, their mood. We get a blood sample to look at their genetics or other blood markers of what may be going on in the brain."
Bernick said the study has produced a pair of practical, preliminary findings.
"We've identified through MRI scanning that there are certain areas of the brain that seem to change over time or are related to the amount of exposure someone has," he said.
"These are areas deep in the brain, one is called the thalamus. These are small structures and we’ve shown that even over a year’s period, those who fight more in general will show greater change or shrinkage in these structures."
Bernick said there may be a way to track accumulating damage in the brain, noting that shrinkage can be linked to poor performance measures affected by head trauma.
"There may be a marker that we can use that can give us a sense of what damage is accumulating. I think that is one exciting finding," he said.
The study has also produced a risk formula.
"We put in information about the volume of the brain that we’re tracking. Put in the age, education, number of fights, what kind of fighter they are ... and you can predict with pretty high certainty if they’re going to have some impairment.
"This may be a tool that an athletic commission could use to screen out which athletes need closer scrutiny," he said. "If there are certain factors that predict who may be at the highest risk of injury, they may need to be watched more closely."
Bernick noted differences between boxers and MMA fighters.
"Boxers generally show more shrinkage in the brain than the MMA people," he said. "The first explanation is that they get more blows to the head, which they do statistically."
Asked how dangerous boxing was, Bernick said: "Compared to what? Jumping out of an airplane?
"Whether it’s a battlefield, a football field or the octagon, there is a risk and the question is how do you reduce that risk."
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue