Dr. Ann McKee: 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.

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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.

This video was produced by BrainLine thanks to generous support from the Infinite Hero Foundation.

About the author: Ann McKee, MD

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.

Ann McKee