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Military Brains Donated for Trauma Research

Scientists will search for clues to blast-related brain injury.
June 24, 2009

Twenty active and retired members of the U.S. military have agreed to donate their brains upon death to a research project dedicated to understanding the effects of repetitive head trauma.

The program, a collaboration between the Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Waltham, MA, and the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, has so far focused on professional athletes, garnering pledges from football players such as Ted Johnson to donate their brains for research. Johnson, a former Patriots player, says that he has suffered neurological problems that he believes are linked to multiple concussions sustained during play. According to the Sports Legacy Institute, “10 of 10 brains of deceased contact sport athletes, ranging in age of death from 18-80, have shown some degree of evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” also called dementia pugilistica, a neurological disease first identified in boxers that is linked to cognitive decline.

Troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan may also face risks of long-term brain damage. With the increasing use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), many have suffered concussions or more severe head trauma. In March of 2009, the Department of Defense estimated that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered more than 360,000 brain injuries, and 45,000 to 90,000 suffer ongoing symptoms. TR explored this issue in a feature published in the May 2008 issue, “Brain Trauma in Iraq.”

According to an article in the New York Times,

Repeated brain trauma among some football players and boxers has been linked to the subsequent appearance of toxic proteins and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain–a disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. Many athletes who were found after death to have had the disease experienced memory loss, depression and oncoming dementia as early as their 30s, decades before afflictions like Alzheimer’s appear in the general population.

The Boston University center and the Sports Legacy Institute will compare findings from the brains of military personnel with those from their athlete program, which has signed up more than 120 donors in less than a year, and other brain banks around the world. The two centers, not the military, are paying for the registry, storage, and examination of brain tissue.

The Sports Legacy Institute says,

The program is expected to mirror the SLI athlete registry … The initial registry members were twelve current and former professional athletes, including former NFL star Ted Johnson and current NHL player Noah Welch. The registry has since grown to 130 members, 80 professional and 50 amateur, as of June, 2009.

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