Sunday 21 December 2014

Should our new understanding of brain damage in sport inspire a ban?

Katie Taylor in action against Mavzuna Chorieva of Tajikistan during the Women's Light (60kg) Boxing semifinals of the London 2012 Olympic Games

 When Katie Taylor was taking hits and striking blows for boxing's Olympic debut in an east London ring last year, John Hardy did not want to look.

To this leading neuroscientist and molecular biologist, a boxing bout is little more than a session of mutual brain injury. He was horrified to see women boxing at Olympic level for the first time at the London 2012 Games.


"We shouldn't get our fun out of watching people inflict brain damage on each other," said Hardy, who is chair of Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at University College London's Institute of Neurology. "To me as a neuroscientist it's almost surreal."


Hardy, whose research work focuses on Alzheimer's and other types of dementia, said having women in an Olympic boxing ring was "a terrible thing" - not because he thinks women should not compete alongside men in sport, but because women boxing simply meant more people inflicting more damage on more brains.


That, in turn, was highly likely to mean more people suffering the devastating, incurable symptoms of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.


Advances in modern neuroscience mean scientists know more than ever about chronic brain damage and the long-term trauma that can result from frequent knocks to the head.


"You get tiny lesions along the blood vessels where they have torn the nerve cells around them. This damages those nerve cells, and those cells start to develop the tangles that you see in Alzheimer's disease," Hardy said.


"And what we now understand is that this process spreads."


Former San Diego Chargers player Junior Seau committed suicide last year after what some believe were years of depression stemming from multiple concussions he suffered as a player.



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