Ann McKee studies brains of former pro football players. She sees a lot of damage.
: Football season is almost here. The Washington Redskins are getting ready. Lots of kids are deciding whether to play this exciting but dangerous sport.
So I talked with Ann McKee. She is the director of the Boston University CTE Center in Massachusetts. The center is studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players and other people. CTE is a brain disease found in people with a history of brain trauma, or blows to the head. CTE can cause a person to be confused and to have problems with memory and anger control. As of now, there is no way to diagnose the disease while a person is living. Researchers are able to study CTE because people have donated their brains for testing after they have died.
KidsPost: Describe what you do at the CTE Center after the brain of a dead person (the donor) comes in.
Ann McKee: We examine the brain thoroughly. That can take a few months. We also interview the donor’s family to find out all we can about the donor — for example, what sports he played and for how long.
KP: How many brains have you examined in BU’s brain-donation program?
A.M.: We have examined 310 brains, mostly from former football players, but also from people who have played hockey, rugby, soccer and other sports.
KP: After all these examinations, can you say what causes CTE?
A.M.: Head trauma. But you do not have to have a concussion to get CTE. CTE can be caused by smaller hits to the head over time. Twenty percent of the people who we found had CTE had never had a reported concussion.
KP: Does playing professional football or other contact sports make it more likely for a person to get CTE?
A.M.: Yes. More than 95 percent of the NFL players — 90 of 94 players — whom we have examined had CTE. While we often receive brains of ex-players who had been showing signs of memory loss and other brain-related problems, these percentages are so high that CTE cannot be rare in professional football.
KP: Are just NFL players at risk?
A.M.: No. We have examined 58 former college football players who never played professionally and found that 48 of them — 82.8 percent — had CTE.
KP: Who is the youngest person you have ever found who had CTE?
A.M.: We have found indications of CTE in the brain of a high school football player who was 17 years old.
KP: Are kids younger than 14 more at risk for brain injuries than adults?
A.M.: That’s an important question. Kids’ brains are developing. Their heads are a larger part of their body, and their necks are not as strong as adults’ necks. So kids may be at a greater risk of head and brain injuries than adults.
KP: Should those kids play tackle football?
A.M.: No. I would advise kids not to play any sports, such as tackle football, where they are exposed to repeated blows to the head.
KP: Are you a sports fan?
A.M.: Yes, I was a gymnast and played volleyball growing up in Wisconsin. My three children played soccer and lacrosse. I grew up as a Green Bay Packers fan. I am not against sports. We want kids to play sports, but we want them to be safe.
Bowen writes the sports opinion column for KidsPost. He is the author of 21 sports books for kids.