In the bruising, full-contact world of mixed martial arts (MMA), almost anything is possible – and with one-third of matches ending in a knockout, that includes brain trauma. So when a group of researchers from the Institute of Living, Johns Hopkins University and the Cleveland Clinic looked at the effects of MMA sparring practice on 92 active, professional MMA fighters, they expected to see a link to brain damage. They found it: As predicted, fighters who spent more time sparring showed more white matter changes on MRI brain scans.

But along with this finding, researchers discovered something surprising.

“We expected to see a decrease in size of measured brain regions due to repetitive impact. Instead, we found a significant increase in the left and right caudate. This is an area of the brain that plays an important role in movement, memory and learning,” says Bharat Narapareddy, MD, a neuropsychiatrist at Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living and Sports Neurology Consultant.

This potentially positive change could be explained by sparring, which combines high intensity exercise, constant strategy and complex movements. Or, explains Dr. Narapareddy, sparring practice could better prepare fighters for professional bouts, and help them avoid head trauma during the actual fight.

Bottom line? Rather than causing damage, the mental and physical activity of sparring appeared to give these parts of the brain a boost.

“Obviously this needs more research, but these could be neuroplastic effects, which lead to improvements. There may be a neuroprotective effect of sparring when done safely,” says Dr. Narapareddy.

In addition to working with athletes as a neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Narapareddy is an active Mixed Martial Arts coach and a competitive black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In the ring and at the gym, he’s experienced how cognitive health and MMA can coexist.

“A lot of people see two fighters in a cage and they think it’s only physical,” says Dr. Narapareddy. “It’s also highly strategic: understanding one’s opponent, understanding how to take advantage of their weaknesses and the game-planning that goes into the fight itself. It’s a very technical sport. I often think of it like a chess match, where you are trying to bait your opponent into making a mistake so that you can capitalize.”

The research team presented their findings, the latest in their Professional Fighters Brain Health Study, at the 2022 American Psychiatric Association’s Annual Meeting. It isn’t the first study to suggest a possible association between rigorous exercise, complex movement and positive brain changes; for instance, prior research has shown increases in different brain regions that were associated with other sports and aerobic exercise. But it was unique in looking at how this might be possible in MMA – a sport known, among other things, for repetitive head impacts.

The study looked specifically at sparring practice, to which professional MMA fighters commit hundreds of hours year-round. While sparring is lower-impact than fights, it can still land dangerous blows to the head, and safety measures like the use of headgear and intensity vary from gym to gym. A future study will explore the effects of grappling, including choke holds, on long-term brain health.

“With this research, we’ll continue to have more awareness about the potential risks and benefits of MMA, and how to practice safely,” says Dr. Narapareddy. “That can go a long way toward making our sport safer.”