With the announcement that Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk will donate his brain to the medical research program at Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, BU has demonstrated its credentials as a leader in brain damage research, officials said.
“BU has a reputation of being the important center doing this work, and also a reputable center that has earned the trust of many of the players out there,” said Robert Stern, co-founder of CTSE.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a form of brain damage caused by repetitive brain trauma, which can be caused by contact sports, such as football and hockey, BU researchers found in a December study.
Researchers are working to determine CTE’s connection with depression and suicide in athletes, such as that of former National Football League player Junior Seau.
“The more important issue is that the whole awareness of brain trauma in football has becomes so prominent,” Stern said. “Both active and former players are now really accepting that this is an important problem and they are willing to do what it takes to help move this science forward.”
BU has not confirmed whether researchers received Seau’s brain for research, but BU officials said they welcome family members of deceased athletes to donate brains for study.
Stern said many active and former NFL athletes have agreed to donate their brains post-mortem, and to participate in longitudinal and clinical studies.
Seau’s apparent suicide in May sparked interest in the media about CTE and its effects on football players, in addition to the suicides of other athletes who were found to have the disease in post-mortem research.
“We were the first research center to focus our research on the long-term effects of brain trauma in athletes,” Stern said. “Neuropathological changes of CTE in former players has been so well done and so striking that it helped to increase public awareness of the disease and center.”
Colin Mooney, a Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences senior and long-time contact-sport athlete, said in an email researchers must get a sense of how to detect CTE early on to stand a chance of halting the progression of the disease or potentially preventing it.
“It is encouraging to know that an institution like BU is conducting [this type of] research,” Mooney said “I do not think much was known or being done about CTE 20 years ago, but the reality of it is grounding.”
Eve Rosenfeld, a CAS sophomore, said she has a history of concussions and she did not know about the disease.
“I knew that having a lot of concussions caused problems, but I didn’t know the specifics about the disease [such as] all of the symptoms like depression,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s good to be informed about issues that can affect so many people.”
Alyssa Thomason, a College of Arts and Sciences and SAR sophomore, said researchers may help develop preventative measures after fully understanding the condition’s impacts.
“It’s definitely very valuable to research topics like this that are relevant to people’s safety,” Thomason said. “More fully understanding the impacts of this condition may help develop preventative measures to reduce injuries and protect young athletes and others from the symptoms.”