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Compulsory brain scans and genetic tests for boxers—or should boxing be banned?
  1. M Spriggs
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr M Spriggs
 Ethics Unit, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Royal Children’s Hospital, Flemington Road, Parkville, Victoria, 3052, Australia; merle.spriggsmcri.edu.au

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Compulsory genetic tests which reveal a predisposition to brain damage could be of more use in preventing harm than brain scans which show that damage has already occurred

Amid calls for a ban on boxing the Victorian government in Australia introduced compulsory brain scans for professional boxers in June 2001. Some people think the introduction of this new law is a “tough” measure. Others think the law is of limited value because the damage has already occurred by the time something shows up on a brain scan. The Victorian government is also considering the introduction of compulsory genetic tests that indicate a predisposition to brain damage.

Nathan Croucher, a 24 year old construction worker and champion amateur boxer has been banned from professional boxing after a compulsory brain scan showed an abnormality which makes him susceptible to brain injury. About the ban, he said “I am very disappointed but I’m just focussing on my family and my work now”.1 Croucher is the third boxer in the last 12 months found to have a brain abnormality and to be banned from professional fighting.1–4 The other two boxers were already fighting professionally. One is reported to be upset by the ban, while the other “understood the potential dangers and did not object to his licence being revoked”.5

The State Government introduced compulsory brain scans after the death of boxer Ahmad Popal in April 2001. Popal was the third boxer since 1974 “to die from blows sustained in the ring”.5 Since June 2001, Victoria’s professional boxers must undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan when they register as professional, every three years when then renew their registration, and at the discretion of the Professional Boxing and Martial Arts Board during the three year period.6 The scans detect existing brain damage—particularly “structural weaknesses in the brain” that “might be worsened during a professional fight”.7

Many in the boxing industry support the compulsory scans. According to the director of the Australian Academy of Boxing: “[B]oxers, under pressure from promoters, trainers and their own ambition needed to be protected.”7

Both the national and the state branch of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) have called for boxing to be banned altogether.5–7 The Victorian state president of the AMA claims that brain scans may be useful but they are limited because the damage detected has already occurred.5

The Victorian government is considering the introduction of compulsory genetic testing for boxers.5,8,9 There is a genetic test which indicates a predisposition to brain damage. It screens for a genetic variation called apolipoprotein E (ApoE) 4 that makes people more susceptible to brain damage from head injuries or “punch-drunk syndrome”. A doctor on the panel advising the Victorian government’s boxing regulator said: “There is no policy at the moment of whether [people with the gene] would or would not be allowed to box. I’d support the board if it wanted to prevent them boxing”.9

Since Croucher’s ban from boxing was reported, Pedro Alcazar, a Panamanian boxer, collapsed and died in his Las Vegas hotel room 36 hours after taking part in a world title fight. A boxing doctor said “Alcazar had shown no symptoms of being hurt until he fell”.10

There were more calls for a ban on boxing in the lead up to a bout between Anthony Mundine and Lester Ellis in Melbourne. The fight was described as “one of the most farcical mis-matches in Australian boxing history”. The AMA claimed Ellis, who is 10 years older and had not fought since being “brutally knocked out” in a fight six years ago, was “a soft target who shouldn’t be allowed to risk being badly hurt”.11 According to Ellis however: “All this talk that I could get hurt or killed is rubbish. Hardly anyone gets hurt seriously in boxing, crossing the road is more dangerous”.12

Compulsory genetic tests which reveal a predisposition to brain damage could be of more use in preventing harm than brain scans which show that damage has already occurred

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