Is Cannabis the Cure for Brain Damage in MMA?

Is Cannabis the Cure for Brain Damage in MMA?

MMA fighters get hit in the head a lot. That means headaches, concussions and even chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is also known as “punch drunk” ( or “dementia pugilistica.” It is a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma to the head. MMA fighters are not the only athletes potentially subject to this condition. Competitors in boxing, football, ice hockey and other contact oriented sports are also at heavy risk.

U.S. Patent on Cannabis for Brain Health

Unbeknownst to many, in 1998 scientist at the National Institute of Health filed for a patent on behalf of the U.S. government. In 2003 it was approved and the government patented specific cannabinoids as both neuroprotectants and antioxidants. Though cannabis still remains federally illegal, it is undeniable that it does have medical benefits. One of those benefits is brain health.

Cannabinoids and specifically one known as CBD have been shown to affect receptors in the natural endocannabinoid system. Every animal with vertebrae has an endocannabinoid system. This means that somewhere in the DNA of animal life forms, we have been pre-programed to receive and utilize cannabis.

The Gravity of CTE

Described by Boston University’s CTE Center, “[CTE] is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in athletes (and others) with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic sub concussive hits to the head…[This] brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.”

  • Some of the symptoms of CTE include:
  • Depression
  • Loss of Memory
  • Confusion
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Dementia

CTE can only be fully diagnosed upon death. A recent study of deceased professional football players who donated their organs to science found that 99% of those studied had signs of CTE. This, along with release of the 2015 movie “Concussion” sparked an outcry in the National Football League (


In 2016 the sport of MMA had its first confirmed case of CTE. Again, the disease can currently only be diagnosed post-mortem. The death of 25-year-old Jordan Parsons, who fought under the popular organization “Bellator,” was found to have clear signs of CTE. It is very likely that there are a great number of CTE cases in the sport. As morbid as it sounds, it may be years before additional cases arise just because the sport is still young and the vast majority of MMA athletes are still alive.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Toronto found that MMA fighter sustain brain injuries in approximately one-third of professional bouts, which is a higher number than boxing or ice hockey. The severity is likely increased because of repeated blows thrown after a fighter has already sustained a concussion or even been knocked unconscious.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the largest MMA promotion in the world with over 500 fighters on their roster. The promotion is currently helping to fund CTE research conducted by the Cleveland Clinic, which specifically pertains to MMA fighters. One of the goals of the study is to identify CTE while a subject is alive. The study has found that fighters that absorb more punches have lower brain volume and are significantly more likely to have brain cavities.

Many states require professional fighters to undergo MRI or CT scans of the brain every couple of years. This is part of the medical requirements to compete, potentially along with blood work, an eye exam, neurological exam, echocardiogram and more depending on the state commission or promotion.

Cannabis Cageside

In 2016 the UFC brought in the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to assist in regulation of drug testing. Marijuana is banned for in competition under USADA, but several states have raised the threshold depending on their marijuana laws.

After submitting UFC star Conor McGregor, Nate Diaz took out a CBD vape pen at the post-fight press conference. This action will go down in history as one of the bravest moments in pro-cannabis rebellion for the sport. Even though CBD does not get you high, it sparked a conversation among competitors, fans and officials.

“It is a drug, yes, but I believe that there should be different penalties for certain products that competitors use,” responded UFC former champion Georges St. Pierre. “Marijuana can help a person who suffers from anxiety, but it can’t make you physically stronger or more powerful, more efficient. I do not believe that it should be judged in a severe way.”

Recently the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its banned substance list for all athletes. Marijuana remained on the list, but the allowance of CBD is a huge step for athletes who use cannabis for its healing properties, the majority of which are derived from CBD.

The Fighter Brain on CBD

Because of its neuroprotectant properties, research ( shows that taking CBD regularly could make a big difference for the brain health of MMA fighters.

One of the biggest positives in CBD research ( is the effect on inflammation. The majority of damage from a concussion occurs because of the brain’s inflammatory response. CBD has been shown to reverse this cascade of inflammation and heal brain cells through both its neuroprotectant and antioxidant properties.

Fighters aren’t likely to start taking fewer blows to the head any time soon. Using cannabis could be the best option to mitigate those effects.

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