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UFC pledges additional $1 million to Professional Athletes Brain Health Study

Etihad Stadium at UFC 193
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC is renewing its financial contribution to a long-term study on head trauma and long-term brain health.

On Thursday, the promotion announced a $1 million pledge that will be paid out over the next five years to the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study. The money will help fund the study as it continues to investigate the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma and those at higher risk of developing the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

The UFC first contributed to the study in 2014, joining a group of combat sports promoters that included Top Rank and Bellator. To date, the promotion has contributed $1,150,000 to the study over two payments, study spokesperson Mackenzie Ruta told MMA Fighting.

“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,” stated study founder Dr. Charles Bernick. “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.”

Since its inception in 2011, the study, based out of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, has enlisted more than 800 professional athletes, including boxers, bull riders and martial artists. There are 350 MMA fighters in the study; 100 current or former UFC fighters have participated, UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN. Half of the 800 athletes who joined returned for a follow-up visit, providing valuable information in determining how impacts affect the brain over time.

Over 31 peer-reviewed articles on repetitive head impacts have been released as a result of the study. Among its findings, researchers have found lower brain volumes in fighters with more ring or cage time, changes in brain structure after one year of exposure to repeated head trauma, and the release of certain proteins from the brain following trauma that could identify brain injury.

This past October, Bernick and other researchers found sex-based differences in cognitive function with men performing more poorly than women of similar age, background and fighting style.

Ruta said the study is close to establishing a set of criteria so that doctors can determine which patients are likely suffering from CTE in what is called traumatic encephalopathy syndrome (TES). Currently, the disease can only officially be diagnosed in patients who have died.

Study co-lead Dr. Aaron Ritter said the study aims to determine the factors – genetic, environmental, or trauma suffered – that put athletes at greater risk for developing CTE.

“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,” he stated in the release. “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.”

UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN the data from the study could be used to inform licensing decisions by state athletic commissions. Fighters at higher risk of getting CTE could face additional scrutiny before being allowed to compete.

“UFC is proud to continue its support of both Cleveland Clinic and the Professional Athletes Brain Health Study,” Epstein stated in a press release. “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.”

After his death in 2017 following a cerebral hemorrhage suffered in a boxing match, former UFC fighter Tim Hague was diagnosed with CTE. Bellator fighter Jordan Parsons, who died in a hit and run accident in 2016, was also found to have the disease.

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