Australian MMA fighters are the first to test concussion tech in virtual reality

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Amena Hadaya was encouraged by her brothers to take up mixed martial arts (MMA), but what started out as a bit of exercise turned into an all-consuming passion.

But about to make her professional debut, the 24-year-old lives with a constant reminder of the high risk of brain damage in her chosen sport.

“Obviously it’s going to affect us later when we’re older,” she said.

“My mom tells me all the time, she’s a nurse.

“You just need to take the right precautions to prevent it from affecting you later and developing chronic diseases.”

The Wollongong resident has volunteered to be one of the first MMA fighters to test an emerging technology that aims to revolutionize the management of brain injuries.

Amena is one of the first MMA fighters to test VR technology for concussion management.(ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

Canadian-Australian company NeuroFlex uses virtual reality (VR) technology to take accurate readings of eye movements and establish a baseline of participants’ brain health.

Athletes are then tested against this baseline after a head injury to establish when the brain has healed and whether it is safe to return to competitive sport.

“Obviously I want to remember my name when I get older,” Ms Hadaya said.

“I want to be able to remember my family, the things that I’ve done. I don’t want to forget that stuff because obviously that’s a possibility.”

two men looking at a computer
Colby Thicknesse (left), with Jeff Rogers, hopes technology can help protect his brain.(ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

Three concussions in less than a year

At 23, Colby Thicknesse has already started his professional MMA career by winning his first two fights.

Despite this unbeaten record, he suffered three concussions this year alone.

“It can affect your mood, you become more irritable, it can increase your risk of injury to your knees, hips and all that sort of thing,” he said.

He welcomes all technological developments that can help protect his brain.

“I’ve suffered a few, so I have to make sure I tick all the boxes and do everything right, so that I don’t come back too soon and suffer longer-term consequences,” he said. declared.

“You can have knee injuries, hip injuries, arm injuries, whatever you can hurt, you can normally come back from that, but if you have a serious brain injury, there’s not much you can do about it. .”

Two men wearing dark clothes, training in a gym.
Colby (right) has won both of his professional MMA fights. (ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

Concussion protocols

The management of concussions and other brain injuries is currently under the microscope in several popular sports codes.

Rugby Australia, AFL South Australia and the FIFA World Cup are among sports organizations adopting baseline testing in an effort to improve their concussion protocols.

Jeff Rogers, a clinical neuropsychologist involved in deploying the technology, said it was a logical next step to use virtual reality to help MMA fighters.

A man in a blue suit, holding a virtual reality headset, standing in front of an indoor chain link fence.
Dr. Rogers thinks VR technology can help take the guesswork out of detecting concussions. (ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

“This is our first foray into working with people from a combat sports background,” he said.

“In a sport where the goal is to make contact with the head, it’s a really sensible, logical and appropriate place to work.”

A woman with dark hair looking up while wearing a VR headset.
The VR headset tracks eye movements to get an accurate picture of brain health before and after injury.(ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

A recent study analyzed over 800 MMA fights in the United States.

He revealed that 65% of injuries suffered by fighters were head injuries, and nearly half of those injuries were concussions.

MMA’s largest professional organization, the UFC, released its first official concussion protocols last year.

“The adoption of these policies by the UFC last year was a real step forward in recognizing that there is a high rate of head injuries … in their sport, and that it would be responsible and appropriate that we do something to detect and manage these [injuries]“, said Dr. Rogers.

A lot to learn about concussions

MMA has skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade, and researchers admit that there are still significant knowledge gaps about the impact of sports on brain health.

Dr Rogers said the data from these tests would help contribute to a body of evidence to better inform and protect athletes.

“We are only just beginning to understand the effects of a single concussion, let alone the cumulative effects of four to six of them over a lifetime,” he said.

“Fights aren’t necessarily safe, but we want to make sure these fighters are safe to get back in the ring.

“[We] are really excited to be part of the process to start accumulating some really good solid evidence…to start guiding some of these professional bodies and professional codes.

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