Monday, 6 June 2016

Muhammad Ali

Any lingering vestige of the 20th century has ended with the passing of Muhammad Ali.  Thus it can be said he defined an era; the space race, civil rights struggles, mass media, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Ali is bound up with that time like  a name running through a stick of rock. With all the TV over his death, it gave me a bit of time to reflect on a couple of things.

Firstly, you would think getting thumped round the head repeatedly would be bad for brain health. Its just a kind of intuition most people have; that the prolonged boxing career Ali emarked on would make you punchy and trigger Parkinson’s (7 years as a journeyman boxer even after the onslaught of the Rumble In The Jungle). But there is no scientific evidence for that. I put this down to the small sample sizes and may be the methodology/ experimental design; you know how narrow the scientific community can be sometimes. But you would expect dementia to be a much more likely outcome from a long boxing career; with Parkinson’s it is the basal cells of the cerebellum (hindbrain) which degenerate.

Observing early footage of Ali, he is the exact opposite of a Parkinson’s patient; look at the table below.

Ali with Parkies
Ali in early years

Slow speech
Slow Movement
Shuffling Gait
Mechanical movement
Motor mouth,
Florid spontaneous poetry
Mohammed Ali Shuffle
Graceful movements, Hyperkinesis

I got round to thinking, maybe Ali had a congenital problem with dopamine secretion; in the early years expressing too much to the extent of being fidgety, and later on in a stage of disintegration. Of course, this could be a problem of unbalanced neurotransmitter secretion, or of receptor cells.

The stress curve of Hans Selye (1936; General Adaptation Syndrome) could be used to show a long period of hyper- arousal/ resistance phase/ eustress where the basal cells are responding to a pathology as yet undetected. He was certainly a force of nature at that time, prone also to fits of depression, nonsensical rambling and occasional outbursts of anger. This reminds me of an ADHD picture.

The other thing I thought (which I lament on his behalf) is that after that epic fight, Ali didn’t resign as he intended, but as mentioned went on to undertake a gruelling 7 year parade of head blows and knock outs. Had he resigned, perhaps he would have arrested his Parkinson’s sufficiently to maybe run as a Senator like Jesse Jackson, run a charity, or a community boxing project. I realise this blows somewhat in the face of my original idea (that his Parkinsons was a kind of teleological or genetic outgrowth) but maybe his pathological need for fighting was also part of the condition. Of course, both the endogenous (genetic) and the environmental (boxing) explanations could be simultaneously true. Whichever was true, we will never know, and sometimes its worth reminding ourselves that obscure neurological or endocrine illnesses can be wonderfully associated with genius as part of a whole package. Whether it is advantageous or disadvantageous is ultimately a value call which is subject to fashion. Ali shall remain as an icon of persevering against all odds.

North Utsire

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