Boxing
© Kate Geraghty
Bernard Dunne (left) vs Reider Walstad (right)
Three years ago Dr Ann McKee gave riveting testimony to a congressional committee in the United States investigating head traumas among the elite of American Football playing in the NFL.

A former professor of neuropathology at Harvard University, Dr McKee, who now works for Boston University, had examined the brains of thousands of people after death to look for signs of neurological damage caused by blunt trauma.

She cited the example of a world champion boxer who had died at the age of 72 having being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at the age of 58. Instead of Alzheimer's disease, she found a massive build-up of neurofibrillary tangles (NFT) which occur in a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, (CTE) which is usually found only in people who have been subject to repeated blows to the head.

"This individual, a former professional boxer, was clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease during life," she told the committee, "but the disease that actually caused his tragic 15-year decline in intellect and eventually killed him, was CTE, a disorder that would have been entirely prevented if he hadn't suffered repeated head injury in his younger years as a boxer."

Dr McKee also spoke of several NFL players who equally had suffered traumatic brain injury and found their latter years blighted by memory loss and personality disorders.

Severe brain trauma

She said she found evidence of severe brain trauma in every single NFL footballer and boxer whom she studied. A 100 per cent rate was incontrovertible evidence, she said, that playing such sports was a danger to your health.

"I have looked at thousands of brains, from individuals from all walks of life, of all ages, and during the past 20 years, I have primarily focused on abnormalities of tau protein. But I have only seen this unique pattern of changes, in this severity, in individuals with a history of repetitive head trauma, including boxers and football players. These changes are dramatically not normal," she said.

Boxing was Ireland's most successful sport in the Olympics and the introduction of women's boxing as an Olympic sport gave renewed focus to an old debate: how dangerous is boxing for the brain? Does it carry too high a risk of permanent damage and what really happens to a brain subjected to repeated knocks, helmet or no helmet?

Most contact sports include an inherent risk but boxing gets one of the worst raps. The issue of the dangers in boxing will be the subject of a seminar hosted by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland Student Society of Neuroscience this Friday which will feature Dr McKee as a keynote speaker.

World-class experts

The RCSI has assembled some world-class experts in the field including the Swedish equivalent of Katie Taylor, former women's world champion Sanna Neselius who is now a doctor, and former world champion Bernard Dunne and Dr Eanna Falvey, the team doctor to the Irish rugby team and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABI) high performance unit and a former Irish amateur superheavyweight boxing champion.

On the eve of the London Olympics, Dr Neselius, who is now a neurologist at Gothenburg's Sahlgrenska hospital, said 80 per cent of female boxers had higher concentrations of protein in their spinal fluid which indicated concussion and nerve cell damage.

She recommended that blood tests be introduced to replace the advanced brain fluid examinations which are too expensive to carry out on a systematic basis.

The sight of the world's greatest and most famous sportsman Muhammad Ali in advanced stages of Parkinson's disease has emboldened those critics of boxing who feel the sport should be banned.

However, far from retreating in the public imagination, boxing has attracted a whole new audience with the success in the London Olympics of women's boxing - a sport that would have been the subject of derision a decade ago.

Bernard Dunne believes the sport is now safer than it has ever been, with helmet-wearing compulsory among amateur boxers, while the professional game is better monitored.

Dunne boxed from the age of five to 30 and has no truck with those who believe it is a barbaric sport that should be banned.

"It is a clever sport, an intellectual sport, you have to be constantly analysing what you are going to do and try to outfox your opponent," he says.

Dunne was diagnosed with a cyst on his brain as a professional boxer which was unrelated to any blows he might have got to the head. He feared that he would be banned in Europe so he went to the United States to box as a professional.

Despite 120 international amateur fights and 30 professional fights, he says he has not as much as a "twitch" as a result of his career. Neither does he believe that Ali's Parkinson's disease is anything other than a naturally occurring disease which affects all kinds of people.

"If you look at mountain biking or hockey, there are so many injuries being caused in these sports. What are you going to do? Ban every sport? . . . In the 25 years that I boxed they [injuries] would be very few and far between.If you look at guys who play rugby and American Football, what they go through is much worse."