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This boxer uses science to track her brain health and help researchers better understand impacts on the head | News from Radio-Canada


Claire Hafner’s chin is tucked protectively behind her gloves. Just above them, his eyes are laser focused, searching for an opening. Her arms spring forth like twin pistons, forcing the solid adolescent power she trains with back against the ropes.

At 46, the Edmonton boxer is considering retirement, but wants a Canadian title before throwing in the towel.

“It’s going to be hard to hang up the gloves without checking that box,” she said.

That decision depends largely on what a team of Las Vegas researchers discover when they meet with them for exhaustive annual brain health tests.

Hafner is one of 17 Canadian athletes participating in a landmark study examining the effects of head trauma on 900 living athletes, primarily from combat sports.

Only about 100 of the participants are women, so Hafner’s brain could provide useful information to help future female athletes, patients with neurodegenerative diseases, survivors of domestic violence and soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury.

WATCH | “Information is power,” says a Canadian boxer:

‘Information is power,’ says Canadian boxer Claire Hafner of head injury study

Claire Hafner is one of 17 Canadian athletes participating in a study on the effects of head trauma on 900 living athletes, mostly from combat sports. She calls it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The Professional Fighters Brain Health study began in 2011 at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas with only a few dozen athletes and aimed to examine the long-term effects of head trauma on athletes and its possible links with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. .

Cumulative research has resulted in numerous peer-reviewed articles on traumatic brain injury, including work on blood biomarkers of repetitive head traumaA examining the impacts on the brains of male and female fighters And changes in the brains of fighters after retirement.

Data is collected through private annual evaluations of participating athletes. These tests also provide each athlete with information about any deterioration in their memory, reaction time, balance or brain tissue.

A battery of tests

“Boxing is a sport where you volunteer to get punched in the head, so I think there’s less sympathy around head injuries,” Hafner said.

After years of fighting and beatings, she worries about the short-term and cumulative effects on her brain, but usually not in the heat of the moment.

“I’m in the ring and I don’t even realize I’m getting hit. Like I should watch my video and be like, ‘Oh, I took a big one,'” she said.

A curved metal building with lots of windows
The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic in Las Vegas has hosted the landmark Professional Fighters Brain Health Study since its launch in 2011. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

During her annual visits to the center, which began in 2020, she undergoes a series of two-hour computerized tests and completes a self-assessment on her mood and emotional well-being. His blood is sent to the laboratory to look for an increase in protein markers that may indicate head trauma. These are many of the same markers found in people with diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

This time around, her results will determine whether she faces another year in the ring.

Women, an important part of the study

One of the main goals of the study, according to lead researcher Dr. Charles Bernick, is to allow athletes to make informed decisions about their careers and when it might be time to retire.

It also looks for telltale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease linked to repeated head trauma that can only be diagnosed after death.

WATCH | Bare-knuckle boxing champ welcomes new research:

Bare-knuckle boxing champion Christine Ferea welcomes more research specific to women

Christine Ferea, who is one of 900 athletes participating in a study on the effects of head trauma, hopes the research will help settle debates in women’s combat sports, such as the number of rounds and their duration.

Using blood tests and MRI scans, researchers are looking for some of the characteristics associated with the disease in hopes of one day being able to diagnose CTE in living athletes and perhaps even prevent it from progressing.

Last year, the first case of CTE was diagnosed in a female athlete, an Australian rules footballer.

Bernick says it’s important that women participate in the study because there are gaps in understanding the long-term effects of head impacts on women “whether in sports, domestic violence or in our army.

They’ve already made some remarkable preliminary findings, including that when it comes to long-term effects, female fighters appear to fare better than their male counterparts.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re at higher risk,” Bernick said. “If two groups are affected and women are better off, is there something biological that protects them?”

A woman with a large metal belt slung over her shoulder
Women’s world bare-knuckle boxing champion Christine Ferea says taking part in the study gave her some peace of mind. (Katie Nicholson/CBC)

Christine “The Misfit” Ferea, the reigning world champion in women’s bare-knuckle boxing, also signed up for the study, in part for peace of mind.

“It made me feel a little more secure. So every year, if I don’t decline, I won’t retire,” she said.

Ferea also hopes the research will help settle debates occurring in women’s combat sports, such as the number of rounds and their duration.

“I think it’s a good thing. And especially for female fighters, we don’t have that research because we haven’t been doing combat sports as long as men,” Ferea said.

The study also finds that once people with signs of deterioration leave a combat or high-impact sport, their blood markers and brain imaging stabilize and, as a group, they find that people are improving.

“When people are actively exposed to head impacts, it changes the brain. And once you stop, there’s this opportunity for repair,” he said.

“What is one more time?”

When Hafner gets his test results, it’s good news: “You’re superior to most people your age,” according to Bernick.

Her assessment of whether or not she should retire is less definitive.

A woman and a man looking at papers while sitting at a table.
Dr. Charles Bernick reviews Hafner’s test results to help decide whether she should remain in the ring. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

“If you’re wondering, are you going to cause irreparable harm by putting up one more fight? Of course not. You know, because it’s all just cumulative,” Bernick said during their consultation. “If you achieved what you set out to achieve. Yeah, it’s probably better that your brain isn’t touched.”

After her results, she said it was “a hundred times more tempting” to avoid retiring.

“You get some good news and it momentarily erases the risks because you’re like, ‘Ooh, I risked everything over the years. And hey, it’s been good. Like there’s nothing terrible yet , so what’s more? “What’s one more time?” she said.

“I want to stay in the ring.”


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