A CBS 58 Special Report: The Brain Lab
Appleton native Dr. Ann McKee was raised on the green and gold, spending her formative years rooting for the team from Green Bay. She says 'the packers were heroes... Vince Lombardi, Max McGee, Paul Horning, all those guys."
Her football love continued into her time as an undergrad student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her attention quickly turned to science and the human brain. Studying the subject took her to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then on to Harvard Medical School.
Studying never really ended for McKee as she began examining brains at the Bedford Veterans Hospital just outside Boston. The Brain Bank as its known is a partnership with the Veterans administration and Boston University. Hundreds of donated human brains are stored and studied at the lab.
McKee began looking at the brains of former athletes ranging from boxers to NFL players. That's when she discovered something unusual, a build-up of tau proteins in the brain similar to what's seen in a person with Alzheimer’s disease. These patients didn't have Alzheimer’s, but they did have the symptoms, like memory loss and dementia. What McKee found was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E. She said “all of these individuals that had this disease had a history of either playing a sport that was associated with head trauma or poorly controlled epilepsy where they were banging their head a lot."
It's estimated the average football player takes more than 950 blows to the head in a season. Many of which are sub-concussive or mild traumatic brain injuries. Something that doesn't cause a loss of function like the huge blows you'd likely see on a TV sportscast.
Dr. Mckee's research and love of football came together when she was asked to look at the brain of Lew Carpenter, who played for her beloved Green Bay Packers. Carpenter died in 2010 and showed signs of dementia to his family, that's why they decided to donate his brain for research. Dr. McKee found evidence that Carpenter's brain was ravaged with CTE.
Since carpenter played, the equipment to protect players has advanced significantly, but Dr. McKee says it's still not enough. She says "the brain which is floating is still exposed to the same forces whether or not that helmet is on or not. And that's what we didn't understand. That those injuries from the acceleration and deceleration could actually cause permanent brain damage."
Precautions are being taken, Dr. McKee says "NFL is taking steps to make it a safer game, they have instituted a concussion policy. They’ve changed their head, neck, and spine committee, so they've addressed the problems."
To avoid CTE the Doctor believes athletes and their teams need to first, treat the head injuries better so that the disease isn't developed later on, and second if a patient has developed the disorder, figure out a treatment to stop it's progression.
For more information go to: www.bu.edu/cste/our-research/brain-bank/