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Bostonians of the year

The braniac: Ann McKee

By Charles P. Pierce
January 2, 2011

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When she was growing up in Appleton, hard by the Fox River in Wisconsin, Ann McKee lived and died with the Green Bay Packers. This made her no different from approximately 99.99 percent of the people in the state. Today, as a neuropathologist with the Veterans Affairs Administration Medical Center in Bedford and a Boston University professor, McKee has thrown herself into the roiling controversy of how the people who play football end up living and dying from the game itself.

“Conceptually, it’s so easy to see,” says the 57-year-old McKee. “You’re getting hit in the head. You get brain damage from that. A lot of people think the helmet makes them invincible and not vulnerable. But the brain floats in the cerebral spinal fluid, and it’s ricocheting and rotating rapidly with each of these head blows. The brain is subject to these forces. Its physical structure is that of firm, gelatinous tissue. It’s deformable.”

For a few years, McKee has been developing a specialty in what is now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition not too different in its effects from Alzheimer’s disease. It was first mentioned in literature in 1928 by a man named Harrison Martland, who described the symptoms he had observed in a study of professional boxers. (The condition was so closely identified with that sport that, for some time, its clinical name was dementia pugilistica.) In fact, McKee’s own work on the condition began with her evaluation of two boxers. This prompted her to wonder whether similar damage was being done to football players. Football is a substantially bigger target. After all, boxing is a dying sport, but football is the great center of gravity around which the entire business of sports spins.

Nearly three years ago, she was contacted by Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler, who had launched the Boston-based nonprofit Sports Legacy Institute to raise awareness of the perils of traumatic brain injuries in athletes. “I thought I would look at the brains of former NFL players,” McKee says. “Chris was the driving force. If a player died, Chris would get in touch with the player’s family and ask them to donate the brain. Most of the time, they’d say no. But 10 percent of the time, they said yes.” At McKee’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU (which was founded in 2008 and where Nowinski is a co-director), there are now 54 brains under study.

It is a mistake, McKee points out, to associate CTE merely with football-related concussions. “Now we’re looking at soldiers and at other people who have suffered repetitive head trauma and seeing the same changes,” she says. “What seems to matter is that [the injuries] are repetitive, and this includes concussive and sub-concussive hits.” All season long, confronted by an increasing amount of medical evidence, the NFL has been groping toward a policy that would make the game less lethal in this regard.

In addition to her clinical work, McKee has been a tireless advocate for public awareness of the damage that can be inflicted by America’s true national pastime. It has not always been easy. In October 2009, she testified before a congressional committee, and one of the members, a Republican from Texas, charged that the work would mean “the end of football as we know it.”

“I think there’s a lot of denial going on,” McKee says. “People didn’t want to accept that trauma produced this condition. Nobody likes change. To accept this data means we have to change the way the game is played.

“Quite honestly, it’s still a fascinating game. I’m hoping we can figure this out – how to prevent it and how to treat it.”

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at cpierce@globe.com.

Ann McKee (David L. Ryan / Globe staff) Ann McKee.
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