Results of a new study have proposed a connection between frequent MMA sparring and changes to brain structure.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in New Orleans on May 21. Lead researcher Aaron Esagoff and his colleagues examined information compiled from 92 active pro MMA fighters participating in their research.
Esagoff, a medical student at Johns Hopkins University, explained the reasoning behind focusing on sparring rather than actual fights.
“Fighters only fight a few times a year and only for a certain amount of time, under an hour, let’s say, but they spend hundreds of hours a year training. And so the health effects of training are going to be really important.”
The fighters involved were all actively competing during the period of study, but also were typically sparring about 10 rounds each week. The subjects were given MRI scans at two points during the study and the results of those scans were examined in relation to the amount of sparring each fighter was doing.
Effects On Brain Structure
The two primary findings of the study were the prevalence of white matter hyperintensities and the size of the caudate nucleus in the fighters that participated. White matter hyperintensities are indicators that a brain’s white matter has been damaged in some way, while the caudate nucleus is responsible for functions such as movement, learning and memory.
Esagoff noted that being hit in the head during sparring might adversely affect the brain’s white matter and cause damage, but regular exposure to a fight situation could protect other parts of the brain (such as the caudate nucleus) during actual competition.
“It could be that the people that are sparring more are getting better at avoiding the big impacts and the big injuries that you can get during a fight that would lead to your caudate getting much smaller,” Esagoff said.
Esagoff and his colleagues concluded their findings by noting that their study was only a small sample size, and a longer-term study would be necessary to establish more conclusive results.
Opinions have varied among members of the MMA community on the subject of sparring in recent years. Some fighters feel that regular sparring is a necessary aspect of their fight preparation, whereas former UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway has chosen to eliminate sparring from his training altogether.
What are your thoughts on this new study examining the effects of MMA sparring on brain structure??