McKee is director of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center. A neuropathologist, McKee is an expert in neurodegenerative disease and is a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University School of Medicine.
The talk, held in front of a capacity crowd in the Lenfest Theater, was part of the Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good’s speaker series.
“These are the cases that stunned me,” McKee said, showing images of athletes who suffered and died from CTE as a result of playing contact sports. “I had been watching football all my life, but I had no idea that the individuals under these helmets were sustaining these head injuries and suffered from a devastating untreatable neurogenerative disease.”
In 2018, McKee was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. She explained that CTE occurs in four stages in people who have suffered repeated concussions and other brain trauma. It is associated with dementia, mood changes and aggression.
She showed slides of healthy brains and brains in various stages of CTE; brains “riddled with tau protein—the most extraordinary pathology I’ve ever seen.” The CTE brains had lesion clusters around blood vessels and at the crevices of the brain, both unique features of CTE.
McKee’s CTE center brain bank at Boston University stores hundreds of brains donated by professional athletes and their families and by many others. A research paper published by McKee in 2017—and later reported by the New York Times—stated that CTE was found in 83 percent of 202 human brains McKee studied, including 110 out of 111 former NFL football players.
The study has drawn criticism and she admitted to the Ursinus audience that the 202 brains represent “a skewed population that does not reflect the prevalence in the general population, but at the very least, we know that this disease is not rare. We don’t know how common it is, but it’s not rare.”
“This is a preventable disease if we can find a way,” McKee said. “We can’t wait for people to die to detect it. We have to detect it in the living.”
McKee is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. She has published more than 70 percent of the world’s CTE case studies and has testified before Congress. —By Ed Moorhouse