This boxer uses science to track her brain health and help researchers better understand head impacts | CBC News

Claire Hafner’s chin is protectively hidden behind her gloves. Directly above them, their eyes are laser focused, searching for an opening. Her arms shoot out like two pistons, forcing the burly teenage powerhouse she’s fighting to retreat into the ropes.

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

“It will be difficult to hang up the gloves without checking that box,” she said.

That decision largely depends on what a team of researchers in Las Vegas finds when they meet with them for comprehensive annual tests of their brain health.

Hafner is one of 17 Canadian athletes who took part in a groundbreaking study of the effects of head injuries on 900 living athletes, primarily from martial arts.

Only about 100 of the participants are women, so Hafner’s brain could provide insights that can help future female athletes, patients with neurodegenerative diseases, survivors of intimate partner violence and soldiers with head trauma.

VIEW | “Information is power,” says the Canadian boxer:

“Information is power,” says Canadian boxer Claire Hafner about a study on head trauma

Claire Hafner is one of 17 Canadian athletes who took part in a study of the effects of head injuries on 900 living athletes, primarily from martial arts. 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 just a few dozen athletes and the goal of studying the long-term effects of head trauma on athletes and its possible links to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Cumulative research has produced numerous peer-reviewed papers on the topic of head trauma, including papers on Blood biomarkers for repetitive head injuryA Reviewing the effects on the brains of male and female fighters And Changes in fighters’ brains after retirement.

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

A series of tests

“Boxing is a sport in which you voluntarily allow yourself to be hit in the head. So I think there’s less sympathy when you have head trauma,” Hafner said.

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

“I’m standing in the ring and I don’t even notice that I’m getting hit. Like I have to watch my video again and say, ‘Oh, I took a big hit,'” 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 been home to the groundbreaking Professional Fighters Brain Health Study since its inception in 2011. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

During her annual visits to the center, which began in 2020, she undergoes a two-hour battery of computer-based tests and completes a self-assessment of her mood and emotional well-being. Your blood will be sent to the laboratory to look for proliferation Protein markers that could indicate head trauma. These are many of the same markers that are found in people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

This time her results will determine whether she risks another year in the ring.

Women are an important part of the study

One of the main focuses of the study, according to chief researcher Dr. Charles Bernick is about giving athletes the opportunity to make informed decisions about their careers and when to retire.

It will also look for telltale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease associated with repeated head injuries that can only be diagnosed after death.

VIEW | Bare knuckle boxing champion welcomes new research:

Christine Ferea, world champion bare-knuckle boxer, welcomes more women-specific research

Christine Ferea, who is among 900 athletes taking part in a study into the effects of head trauma, hopes the research will help settle debates in women’s combat sports, such as how many rounds there should be and how long they should last.

Using blood tests and MRIs, 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 its progression.

Last year, the first case of CTE was diagnosed in a female athlete – an Australian soccer player.

Bernick said it was important to include women in the study because there are gaps in understanding the long-term effects of head impacts on women, “whether in sports, in domestic violence or in our military.”

They’ve already uncovered some notable preliminary findings, including that female fighters appear to fare better than their male counterparts in terms of long-term effects.

“It doesn’t appear that they are at any higher risk,” Bernick said. “If we have two groups that are affected and the women get better, is there something biological that protects them?”

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

Reigning women’s bare-knuckle boxing world champion Christine “The Misfit” Ferea also signed up for the study, partly for safety reasons.

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

Ferea also hopes the research will help settle debates in women’s combat sports, such as how many rounds there should be and how long they should last.

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

The study also finds evidence that when people with signs of deterioration stop a combat or competitive sport, blood counts and brain imaging stabilize, and as a group they find that people get better.

“When people are actively exposed to head impacts, the brain changes. And if you stop doing that, there is a possibility of repair,” he said.

“What’s up again?”

When Hafner receives her test results, it’s good news: “You’re superior to most people your age,” says Bernick.

His assessment of whether or not she should retire is less clear.

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

“If you ask, will you cause irreparable damage if you fight one more battle?” Of course not. You know, because all of these things are just cumulative,” Bernick said during their consultation. “When you have achieved what you wanted to achieve. Yeah, it’s probably better for your brain not to get hit.”

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

“You get good news, and it blocks out the risks for a moment because you think, ‘Ooh, I’ve been risking everything for all these years, what’s up again?'” she said.

“I want to stay in the ring.”

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