Connecting CTE and Football
Dr. Ann McKee grew up a football fan and never considered the repetitive hits sustained by football players would lead to brain abnormalities identical to what she found in the brain of boxers.
I tried to get more brains from boxers. They came in – a couple came in over the
next few years. But then, very coincidentally, this was preparation meets opportunity, I met Chris Nowinsky. He asked me if I’d be willing to look at
American football players’ brains. And I jumped at the chance. Not only because I’m a huge football fan
historically, but I was fascinated by what trauma could do to the brain and I really
wanted to see if the pathology that we saw in football players resembled what I’d seen
in Paul Pender. This was just an area that’s always interested
me. My brother is a doctor too and he’s a big
athlete. He played football for many years. So this is then something in our sort of doctor
shop talk, we’d always been wondering about patients that we’d seen. And you know, could football or the exposure
to trauma provoke some disease states that we’ve been curious about. And so I was really poised to do this work. And the first case I had was John Grimsley,
45 years old, Houston Oiler, became symptomatic in a very non-specific way at age 40, just
wasn’t kind of the guy he used to be, difficulty planning, multitasking. He shot himself accidentally while cleaning
his gun, and his wife who had married him when they were teenagers, was just concerned that he didn’t seem quite right. And so we looked at his brain and it looked
very much like Paul Pender. It was not quite as severe, but the pattern
of abnormalities was identical. And that was a shock to see a football player
in his mid-40s die and have this terrible neurogenerative disease. In all my work in neurodegeneration, that
was unheard of to have a neurogenerative disease at age 45 unless you had some genetic abnormality or some family history of something like that. But to see it out of the blue, that really
alarmed me. And I think first thing I did was show it
to my brother, my slides, and I was like, “Can you believe this?” And it was like we were just sort of shaking
our head. It was just – here we had been football
plans. He played football. We knew they got joint problems, hip problems, leg problems. Never occurred to me, and I’m a brain scientist, that they were actually getting head trauma. You can’t see it. They don’t complain of pain. And they aren’t immediately symptomatic
unless they’ve had a concussion, so this was really revolutionary to me.
Posted on BrainLine January 11, 2019.
Ann McKee, MD is the chief neuropathologist for the Framingham Heart Study and the Boston University-based Centenarian Study. She is also the chief neuropathologist for the Boston-based Veterans Administration Medical Centers and for the Sports Legacy Institute.