Dr. Bennet l. Omalu, MD, MBA, MPH, first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) over a decade ago. However, chances are you hadn’t heard of the neurodegenerative disease until the past few years. In the meantime, the neuropathologist faced several efforts to discredit his work by organizations like the NFL while continuing to educate the public about the risk of repetitive brain injuries.
For his efforts, the doctor was awarded the highest honor given by the American Medical Association (AMA) this weekend during the opening session of the 2016 AMA Interim Meeting.
CTE has only become a widely recognized health risk related to repetitive brain trauma in the past few years, lawsuits, mounting evidence, and public outcry has forced sports organizations to admit the link between concussions and long-term brain disease.
The condition was discovered by Dr. Omalu when he was working in a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh. He was tasked to conduct the postmortem examinations of well-known NFL offensive lineman Mike Webster’s brain when he noticed abnormalities.
“[W]hen I looked at his brain and he had diffuse amyloid plaques everywhere and there were no neuritic plaques … I took the slides home with me,” Dr. Omalu said in a 2015 interview. “I spent six months with those slides. I saw tau randomly situated, and not reminiscent of any other dementia that I knew. My first reaction, when I went to the literature, was that I expected to find previous reports like this, but I didn’t find even one.”
Mike Webster became just the first of many former NFL players to be diagnosed with CTE in postmortem examinations by Omalu and other neuropathologists.
It may have been naïve of Omalu to think the league would be pleased with the news that their players were at risk for long-term brain damage. Instead, the league began mounting an effort behind the scenes to discredit the doctor’s research through medical studies and journals funded by the NFL – as was recently dramatized in the film Concussion starring Will Smith.
Despite this effort, Omalu continued to press the league and gained the support of his colleagues. More than seven years from when Omalu first identified the hallmark signs of CTE in Mike Webster, the NFL final publicly acknowledged the reality and risk for CTE in football in 2009.
“Because of the service Dr. Omalu has rendered to every player and every family member in the football and other sporting communities, I am delighted to present him, on behalf of the AMA, with the Distinguished Service Award—our highest honor,” AMA President Andrew W. Gurman, MD, said in a statement. “His meritorious service is all the more remarkable given that Dr. Omalu was relatively junior at the time of his discovery, having only completed his pathology residency a few years prior to describing CTE.”