Dementia pugilistica

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Dementia pugilistica
Classification and external resources
Boxers receive many blows involving rotational force, which is implicated in concussion. Repeat concussions can lead to dementia pugilistica.
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Dementia pugilistica
Classification and external resources
Boxers receive many blows involving rotational force, which is implicated in concussion. Repeat concussions can lead to dementia pugilistica.

Dementia pugilistica (DP) is a neurodegenerative disease with features of dementia that may affect amateur or professional boxers as well as athletes in other sports who suffer concussions. A variant of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) it is also called chronic boxer's encephalopathy, traumatic boxer’s encephalopathy, boxer's dementia, chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing (CTBI-B), and punch-drunk syndrome. Symptoms and signs of DP develop progressively over a long latent period sometimes amounting to decades, with the average time of onset being about 12 to 16 years after the start of a career in boxing. The condition is thought to affect around 15% to 20% of professional boxers.

As a medical term, dementia pugilistica presently only seems to apply to boxers from a bygone age. Repetitive concussions are obviously common as well to quarterbacks, wide receivers, hockey and soccer forwards, and especially the goalies. Occasionally a catcher defending home plate will experience a concussion. Common encyclopedic definition of a concussion suffered as sport by an audience should be recorded and rewarded accordingly.[clarification needed]

The condition is caused by repeated concussive and sub-concussive blows (blows that are below the threshold of force necessary to cause concussion), or both.[1] Because of the concern that boxing may cause DP, there is a movement among medical professionals to ban the sport.[2] Medical professionals have called for such a ban since as early as the 1950s.[3]

The word pugilistica comes from the Latin root pugil, for boxer (akin to pugnus fist, pugnāre to fight).[4][5]


The condition, which occurs in athletes having suffered repetitive blows to the head, manifests as dementia, or declining mental ability, problems with memory, and Parkinsonism, or tremors and lack of coordination.[2] It can also cause speech problems[2] and an unsteady gait. Patients with DP may be prone to inappropriate or explosive behavior and may display pathological jealousy or paranoia.[2] Individuals displaying these symptoms also can be characterized as "punchy", another term for a person suffering from DP.

Sufferers may be treated with drugs used for Alzheimer's disease and Parkinsonism.[6]


It is not well understood why this syndrome occurs.[7] Loss of neurons, scarring of brain tissue, collection of proteinaceous, senile plaques, hydrocephalus, attenuation of the corpus callosum, diffuse axonal injury, neurofibrillary tangles, and damage to the cerebellum are implicated in the syndrome.[8] The condition may be etiologically related to Alzheimer's disease.[8] Neurofibrillary tangles have been found in the brains of dementia pugilistica patients, but not in the same distribution as is usually found in people with Alzheimer's.[9] One group examined slices of brain from patients having had multiple mild traumatic brain injuries and found changes in the cells' cytoskeletons, which they suggested might be due to damage to cerebral blood vessels.[10]

Increased exposure to concussions and sub-concussive blows is regarded as the most important risk factor, which can depend on the total number of fights, number of knockout losses, the duration of career, fight frequency, age of retirement, and boxing style.[11] One study found that the ApoE4 allele is associated (p < .001) with increased severity of chronic neurologic deficits in high-exposure boxers. Thirty professional boxers underwent neurological assessment and genetic testing for the ApoE4 allele, a known genetic risk factor for dementia, especially late-onset sporadic Alzheimer's disease. The severity of their cognitive, motor, and behavioral impairments was stratified using the Chronic Brain Injury scale, ranging from 0–9 with a score of greater than 0 identified as abnormal. Among 18 boxers with more than 12 professional bouts, those who possessed at least one ApoE4 allele had a higher CBI score (mean 3.9 ± 2.3) compared to boxers without the allele (mean 1.8 ± 1.2). The remaining boxers with less traumatic exposure had a mean score of 0.33, regardless of ApoE genotype.[12]

An April 1983 article in Sports Illustrated titled “Too Many Punches, Too Little Concern” summarized what was then the state of the art in neurologic exams and diagnosis of “punch drunk” syndrome. The most common characteristics of boxers suffering obvious outward signs of dementia are enlarged brain ventricles and a cavum septum pellucidum. The article cites the results of CT scans on 8 former champions with 5 of them displaying evidence of a cavum septum pellucidum including Muhammad Ali and contender Jerry Quarry. Quarry, at that time displaying no obvious behavioral signs of brain atrophy or damage, would succumb to dementia pugilistica 16 years later at age 53 in 1999.[13]


DP was first described in 1928 by a forensic pathologist, Dr. Harrison Stanford Martland, who was the chief medical examiner of Essex County in Newark, New Jersey in a Journal of the American Medical Association article, in which he noted the tremors, slowed movement, confusion, and speech problems typical of the condition.[14] In 1973, a group led by J. A. Corsellis[15] described the typical neuropathological findings of DP after post-mortem examinations of the brains of 15 former boxers.[15]

Famous cases[edit]

Dementia pugilistica is relatively common among boxers having had long careers, many also boxed as children several years beforehand, and receiving a great many blows to the head. It is perhaps under-reported because the symptoms often do not become overt until middle age or even later and are often indistinguishable from Alzheimer's. On the other hand, dementia pugilistica has often been falsely reported. It has been rumored that Jack Dempsey suffered from it, when in fact he retained his mental vigor until his death at 87.[citation needed] Joe Louis developed signs of paranoid schizophrenia that have been attributed to cocaine abuse but may have a genetic element (his father was institutionalised for mental illness).[citation needed] Other ex-boxers have been said to have had dementia pugilistica when they have nothing worse than a working-class accent and a gruff demeanor (e.g., Rocky Graziano, Tony Zale).[citation needed]

However, Jimmy Ellis, Floyd Patterson (who resigned from the New York State Athletic Commission because of his deteriorating memory), Bobby Chacon, Jerry Quarry, Mike Quarry, Jimmy Young, Wilfred Benitez, Emile Griffith, Willie Pep, Freddie Roach, Sugar Ray Robinson, Billy Conn, Joe Frazier, Fritzie Zivic, and Meldrick Taylor appear to have been genuinely affected by the disorder.[citation needed] Ingemar Johansson may be another victim. In addition, Muhammad Ali's Parkinson's disease was said to be caused by his boxing career, but Ali's physician Ferdie Pacheco states in his book Fight Doctor that Ali's condition is often misquoted and that Ali, in fact, has Parkinson's syndrome, which he advises is caused by physical trauma. Some maintain that this sort of condition is precisely diagnosed only in autopsy and claims of retired athletes not having DP are rarely accompanied by autopsy results.[citation needed] On the other hand, diagnosis of Parkinson's disease on the basis of clinical observations is 75–80% accurate.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Erlanger DM, Kutner KC, Barth JT, Barnes R (1999). "Neuropsychology of sports-related head injury: Dementia pugilistica to post concussion syndrome". The Clinical Neuropsychologist 13 (2): 193–209. doi:10.1076/clin. PMID 10949160. 
  2. ^ a b c d Mendez MF (1995). "The neuropsychiatric aspects of boxing". International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 25 (3): 249–262. doi:10.2190/CUMK-THT1-X98M-WB4C. PMID 8567192. 
  3. ^ Corsellis JA (1989). "Boxing and the Brain". BMJ 298 (6666): 105–109. doi:10.1136/bmj.298.6666.105. PMC 1835400. PMID 2493277. 
  4. ^ Pugilism (origin), retrieved on 2013-2-2.
  5. ^ NCERx. 2005. Brain Trauma, Subdural Hematoma and Dementia Pugilistica. Retrieved on 2007-12-19.
  6. ^ Jordan BD (2000). "Chronic traumatic brain injury associated with boxing". Seminars in Neurology 20 (2): 179–85. doi:10.1055/s-2000-9826. PMID 10946737. 
  7. ^ Cifu D and Drake D (2006-08-17). "Repetitive Head Injury syndrome". Retrieved 2007-12-19.  Others would argue that the mechanism is well understood indeed. It arrives with a crashing blow to the head from boxing glove many times over, contact with astroturf even fewer times. In war or in sport, an injury to the head is treated the same. However, while an athlete loses his career, a soldier with a head injury may lose his career, his limbs, his hearing or sight.
  8. ^ a b Graham DI and Gennareli TA. Chapter 5, "Pathology of Brain Damage After Head Injury" In, Cooper P and Golfinos G. 2000. Head Injury, 4th Ed. Morgan Hill, New York.
  9. ^ Hof PR, Bouras C, Buée L, Delacourte A, Perl DP, Morrison JH (1992). "Differential Distribution of Neurofibrillary Tangles in the Cerebral Cortex of Dementia Pugilistica and Alzheimer's Disease Cases". Acta Neuropathologica 85 (1): 23–30. doi:10.1007/BF00304630. PMID 1285493. 
  10. ^ Geddes JF, Vowles GH, Nicoll JA, Révész T (1999). "Neuronal Cytoskeletal Changes are an Early Consequence of Repetitive Head Injury". Acta Neuropathologica 98 (2): 171–178. doi:10.1007/s004010051066. PMID 10442557. 
  11. ^ Jordan, B. D. (2009). Brain injury in boxing. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 28(4), 561-78, vi.
  12. ^ Jordan, B. D., Relkin, N. R., Ravdin, L. D., Jacobs, A. R., Bennett, A., & Gandy, S. (1997). Apolipoprotein E epsilon4 associated with chronic traumatic brain injury in boxing. JAMA : The Journal of the American Medical Association, 278(2), 136-140.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Martland HS (1928). "Punch Drunk". Journal of the American Medical Association 91 (15): 1103–1107. doi:10.1001/jama.1928.02700150029009. 
  15. ^ a b Corsellis JA, Bruton CJ, Freeman-Browne D (August 1973). "The aftermath of boxing". Psychological Medicine 3 (3): 270–303. doi:10.1017/S0033291700049588. PMID 4729191. 
  16. ^ Jankovic J (April 2008). "Parkinson's disease: clinical features and diagnosis". J. Neurol. Neurosurg. Psychiatr. 79 (4): 368–76. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2007.131045. PMID 18344392.