How boxing affects the brain -

How boxing affects the brain

It's well known that Muhammad Ali has Parkinson's disease. But why are some fighters and other athletes prone to brain disease while others are not? Like many young boxers, Omar Valenzuela looks up to Muhammad Ali. And like Ali, Omar has big goals.

"To win a title, it's one of my goals", says Omar.

In his prime, Ali won three titles and now, at 70, he's in the fight of his life with Parkinson's disease.

"We really don't know why he has Parkinson's. It could have been from boxing, but nobody knows yet," says Rasheda Ali, Muhammad Ali's daughter. "That's why it's so important to donate time and energy to research so we can find that out."

For the first time, professional fighters and brain health are being studied in real time. Fighters get a state-of-the art MRI, memory and cognitive tests, speech analysis, mood questionnaire and a clinical exam to see if subtle changes in the brain can be detected over time.

Dr. Charles Bernick, a Cleveland Clinic neurologist, says that "one of the critical elements of the study is being able to determine why some athletes develop these long-term complications and some don't. The hope is that by following people over time we can learn where this…when the earliest changes occur and hopefully predict which of these athletes are at risk for developing these long-term complications. If you know that, there's a potential to intervene and prevent some of these chronic problems from developing."

Just nine months into the study, early results show that brain matter is changing, especially in fighters who have spent more time in the ring.

"The volume of the brain is shrinking and the fibers that cross the brain are starting to dissipate or be injured," says Dr. Bernick.

It's still too early to know what these changes in brain matter mean for young fighters like Omar, but as long as he's healthy, he's keeping his eye on the prize.

Copyright 2012 America Now. All rights reserved.

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