Ann McKee, MD, the Director of Neuropathology and the VA Boston and a Professor at the Boston University School of Medicine discovered CTE in the brain of Paul Pender, a boxer, in 2003. McKee had been less well-known than Bennett Omalu, MD in the early days of CTE research as she quietly pursued her work. In 2008, Dr. McKee teamed up with Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard athlete who turned professional wrestler and is now a health advocate. Nowinski brought Dr. McKee into contact with the families of deceased athletes whose brains were being donated for research.The pattern of tau deposits now associated with CTE was seen in the brains of athletes who had been involved in contact sports. Most of McKee’s early subjects were former NFL players who had a constellation of symptoms including: depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior and memory loss. When McKee found CTE in the brain of an 18-year old high school athlete she became alarmed. Since that finding McKee and her colleagues found CTE in the brains of other athletes, like hockey players as well as in the brains of military personnel exposed to head trauma. Her research lead her to understand that subconcussive blows were “the real drivers” behind the development of CTE and made the disease more likely to occur.
Much like Omalu, McKee’s early work was the subject of much criticism and she encountered doubters at professional conferences and in the world of sports. Recently McKee’s published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that of 202 brains of former football players, 177 had CTE. Dr. McKee also served as the pathologist for the study of Aaron Hernandez’s brain. Hernandez, the former Patriot, was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence for killing his friend. Hernandez ended his life six months into his sentence. The autopsy revealed that Hernandez had advanced CTE. Certainly, Dr. McKee’s finding sheds light on the tragedy which brought Aaron Hernandez from a promising pro-football career to a life sentence for murder.
Dr. Ann McKee’s recognition is well-deserved and has been earned through hard work. Her current research into early biomarkers could identify CTE in the living and perhaps can prevent the disease in some athletes from experiencing the ravages it can cause. At NeuroNotes, we appreciate that Dr. Ann McKee’s work has been recognized.