Muhammad Ali suffers from Parkinson's syndrome because of injuries to the brain he sustained during his 22-year boxing career, his doctor said Wednesday.
During his 61-bout career, the three-time heavyweight champion often boasted that his face was still pretty and unmarred by the head blows landed by Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and others.
Nevertheless, damage was occurring inside, where it was not apparent, according to Dr. Dennis Cope, Ali's physician and director of the training program in general internal medicine at the UCLA Medical Center.
"Our feeling is that Muhammad Ali's condition is 'pugilistic brain syndrome,' caused by injuries to the brain from fighting," Cope said in a telephone interview.
Cope has served as the former heavyweight champion's doctor since 1980. Ali, 45, was diagnosed in 1984 as having a form of Parkinson's syndrome.
Parkinson's syndrome has some of the same characteristics as Parkinson's disease though not as severe and is caused by gradual deterioration of certain nerve centers inside the brain that control movements.
Characteristic symptoms involve an involuntary, rhythmic shaking of the hands, the head or both, the loss of very fine coordination, and some muscular rigidity that reduces the ease of speech and movement.
The cause of the common form of Parkinson's is unknown, but Cope said severe blows to the head can be one cause.
"The damage occurs because of the rupture of small blood vessels in the substance of the brain," Cope said.
The minute bleeding forms contusions, the equivalent of bruises in the brain. As these heal, Cope said it can lead to scarring and cause certain neurons in the brain to "drop out."
In April 1983, Sports Illustrated reported that an abnormal condition--an atrophy more characteristic of older people--had been found in a CAT scan of Ali's brain.
A radiologist retained by the magazine said the condition, a widened third ventricle that appeared on the scan, shows up on 50% of boxers with more than 20 bouts.
The magazine said the condition was found four times as frequently in boxers than in non-boxers.
Cope distinguished Ali's diagnosis from what he called "dementia pugilistica," the medical term for punch drunk, which can affect a fighter's ability to think and remember.
"As most people are aware, he has some difficulty with his speech and he does have fine tremors," Cope said. "However, he is able to function quite normally in all other respects and his memory is fine."
Cope says Ali's condition has responded to L-Dopa, a drug treatment.
Tuesday, Ali said he was looking into a suggestion by a Mexican doctor that he undergo an experimental medical procedure for Parkinson's victims, in which surgeons implant adrenal gland tissues in the brain.
The deterioration of the brain's nerve centers disrupts the balance between body chemicals necessary for transmitting nerve impulses, causing a deficiency of dopamine, a brain hormone. The adrenal glands produce dopamine and a number of other hormones.
But Cope said: "At this point, his symptoms are not severe enough to warrant this operation, which is still very experimental and has major risks associated with it."