Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

UFC eyes psychedelics as therapy for fighters’ brain injuries

Iliarde Santos (r.) punches Ian McCall in the head.
Iliarde Santos (r.) punches Ian McCall in the head.
Photo: AP

Last month, Ian McCall told HBO’s Real Sports that his 17 years in mixed martial arts led him to a painkiller addiction. “I was medicated and so numbed out from such a young age, I turned into a monster,” he told correspondent David Scott.

McCall, now retired from fighting, uses psilocybin, otherwise known as “magic mushrooms,” to treat his addiction and depression. He also wants to introduce psychedelics to more fighters who suffer from similar conditions.

Dana White and the UFC saw the Real Sports segment and they say they’re taking action. In a recent interview with MMA Junkie, White revealed that the UFC is in contact with the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research to explore psychedelics as potential brain therapies for fighters.

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“We’ve actually reached out to the Johns Hopkins guys,” the UFC president said. “We’re diving into that.”

According to ESPN, McCall has already been a part of a Johns Hopkins study. He has also been in touch with the UFC about the treatment:

“When you go into a cage, when you go into a ring and you fight and even football, you’re giving and receiving [post-traumatic stress syndrome] and no one wants to talk about it, but that’s what’s happening. Your trauma is stored in your tissue, so you’re actually giving and receiving PTSD while you’re in there and that’s a big reason why I work in psychedelics, to try and fix those exact things. We need to take care of these athletes a little better, just like we need to do with vets.”

Indeed, a growing number of military veterans are turning to MDMA therapies for PTSD treatment. One Iraq war veteran called assisted psychotherapy “THE silver bullet for treating PTSD.” But some researchers who study psychedelics can’t say for sure whether athletes experience PTSD like veterans.

“I think [McCall] is probably using a broader conceptualization of PTSD than someone like myself would.” Michelle St. Pierre, a Ph. D candidate at the University of British Columbia, told Deadspin. However, “that’s definitely not to say that there isn’t trauma occurring in the ring.”

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St. Pierre, an MMA fan herself, studies recreational and therapeutic uses of cannabis and psychedelics. She thinks the UFC’s announcement is “exciting,” especially because the company, valued at around $9 billion, could help fund research she feels is needed.

In addition to her research in cannabis and psychedelics, St. Pierre also studies partner violence — something many former UFC fighters have been accused of. In 2015, Real Sports revealed that domestic violence rates in the UFC are more than double the national average. And in 2018, St. Pierre led a study that found men who use psychedelics could lower the risk of partner violence.

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So I asked if psychedelics could help fighters keep their aggression in the cage. St. Pierre told me to be wary of jumping to any concrete conclusions.

“Psychedelics are not this magic pill that you just take and suddenly you’re going to be less aggressive,” the researcher said. “But what I feel is most promising here is [potentially] selecting those people from the UFC who maybe are at greater risk of violence or aggressive behavior, or have history of it, and prioritizing those people to get this treatment.”

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It shouldn’t shock anyone to hear that a career in mixed martial arts could lead to brain trauma. “This is a contact sport,” White said in his interview with MMA Junkie. “Anybody who has ever done this [when they were] younger, myself included, is dealing with brain issues. It’s part of the gig.”

But there could be a better way to deal with those traumatic brain injuries. The UFC is hoping psychedelics can be part of that solution.

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