(This post originally appeared on Boston University’s Research News website as “Head Examiner: Neurologist Ann McKee Talks About Battered Brains, Tangled Tau, And The Future of Sports“)
By Barbara Moran
For Ann McKee, every brain tells a story. And sometimes it’s a tragic one. McKee, a professor of neurology and pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine (MED), is the director of neuropathology for the Veterans Affairs New England Healthcare System, and also directs BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in athletes with a history of repetitive brain trauma. McKee first identified its telltale mark—tiny tangles of a protein called tau, clustered around blood vessels—in the dissected brain of a boxer who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Although most people associate CTE with professional football players, McKee has found it in the brains of soccer, hockey, rugby, and baseball players as well. Her research has alerted the public to the long-term dangers of repetitive hits in sports and raised tough questions about safety. McKee was invited to speak about this growing public health concern at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society, held in February 2015 in San Jose, CA. She told BU Research the story behind her discovery of CTE, and what it might mean for the future of sports.
BU Research: You’re a world expert on tau protein, which has been implicated in Alzheimer’s, CTE, and other brain diseases. Have you studied tau your whole career?
McKee: Yes. I love tau.
It’s beautiful, the way it collects throughout the nervous system and just sort of fills up the nerve cell. It’s always been quite lovely to look at, visually captivating. I mean, how crazy is that? But it’s true.
When you started studying tau, you were studying Alzheimer’s?
I was interested in Alzheimer’s, but I also worked on PSP (progressive supernuclear palsy), and something called corticobasal degeneration.
Those are not so famous.
No, they’re not so famous. But I got very involved in defining what these individual diseases looked like. It’s like being at the Smithsonian and being really interested in one collection of pottery or something. And once you start understanding it, you start seeing all these differences, and it’s like “Whoa!”
Brains with CTE show a distinct pattern of tau protein, seen here in brown. The two slides on the bottom come from the brain of a 66-year-old ex-NFL player. The slides on top are from a 65-year-old man without CTE. Photo courtesy of Ann McKee
Do you remember the first time you saw a brain with CTE?
Yes. It was phenomenally interesting. The first case was Paul Pender, a professional [middleweight] boxer here in the Boston area. He had twice been world champion. That was my first time seeing it under the microscope. I looked at the slide and it was like “Oh my God! This is so amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this.” It just blew my mind. That was 2003.
How did it look different than, say, a brain with Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease has these beta amyloid plaques that look like small puffs of smoke throughout the brain. Continue reading