Amena Hadaya started learning Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) with the encouragement of her brothers, but what started as a little exercise has turned into a full-blown passion.
- Wollongong MMA fighter pioneers new technology to use virtual reality to manage concussions
- NeuroFlex uses virtual reality headset to test brain activity before and after injury
- The technology is designed to stop fighters from returning to the ring until their brains have fully recovered
But on the cusp of her career debut, the 24-year-old has been reminding her of the high risk of brain injury in her chosen sport.
“Obviously this affects us as we grow up,” she said.
“My mom keeps telling me this, she’s a nurse.
“You just need to take the right precautions to avoid affecting you later and developing a chronic disease.”
The Wollongong resident volunteered to be one of the first MMA fighters to test an emerging technology designed to revolutionize brain injury management.
Australian-Canadian company NeuroFlex uses virtual reality (VR) technology to accurately read eye movements and establish a baseline of participants’ brain health.
Athletes are then tested against this baseline following a head injury to determine when the brain has healed and whether it is safe to return to competitive sports.
“Obviously, when I grow up, I want to remember my name,” Ms Hadaya said.
“I want to be able to remember my family, the things I’ve done. I don’t want to forget those things because it’s obviously possible.”
3 concussions in less than a year
Colby Thicknesse, 23, has started his professional mixed martial arts career, winning his first two fights.
Despite this undefeated record, he has suffered three concussions this year alone.
“It affects your mood, you become more irritable, and it increases the risk of injury to your knees, hips and things like that,” he says.
He welcomes any technological development that can help him protect his brain.
“I’ve suffered some pain, so I need to make sure I tick all the boxes and do everything right so I don’t come back too soon and suffer long-term consequences,” he said.
“You might have a knee injury, a hip injury, an arm injury, anything you might have injured can recover normally, but if you have a serious brain injury, there’s not much you can do.”
The management of concussions and other brain injuries is currently under the microscope in several popular sports norms.
Sports organisations such as Rugby Australia, South Australia AFL and the FIFA World Cup use baseline testing to improve their concussion protocols.
Using VR to help MMA fighters is a logical next step, says Jeff Rogers, a clinical neuropsychologist involved in promoting the technology.
“This is the first time we’ve tried to work with someone with a background in combat sports,” he said.
“In a sport where the goal is contact with the head, it’s a very sensible, logical and appropriate place to work.”
A recent study analyzed more than 800 MMA matches in the United States.
The survey found that 65 percent of combatant injuries were head injuries, nearly half of which were concussions.
The UFC, the largest professional MMA organization, released its first official concussion protocol last year.
“The UFC adopted these policies last year in recognition of the high rate of head injuries…a real step forward in their sport that it is responsible and appropriate that we take steps to detect and manage these incidents [injuries]’ said Dr Rogers.
A lot to know about concussions
The popularity of MMA has grown rapidly over the past decade, and researchers acknowledge that there are still significant gaps in knowledge about how the sport affects brain health.
Dr Rogers said data from these tests will help provide a wealth of evidence to better inform and protect athletes.
“We’re just beginning to understand the impact of one concussion, let alone the cumulative impact of four to six concussions over a lifetime,” he said.
“Fighting is not necessarily safe, but we want to make sure these fighters can return to the field safely.
“[We] Great to be part of the process of starting to build up really good hard evidence…starting to guide some of these professional bodies and professional codes. “