Athlete. West Point cadet. Army Ranger. Proctor & Gamble CEO. VA secretary.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald said on Wednesday he will donate his brain for research on the long-term health effects of concussions, including diseases like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain wasting condition that has been diagnosed after death in National Football League athletes and some veterans.
Speaking at a VA Brain Trust summit in Washington, D.C., McDonald said his brain, which has been knocked around since childhood when he played football, as a young adult playing rugby and boxing at the U.S. Military Academy in New York, and as an Army paratrooper jumping out of airplanes, may not be much help to research but could at least contribute to the understanding of lifespan of an active brain.
"I'm willing to pledge my brain to the [Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation] collaboration because this is very, very serious," McDonald said.
The announcement came after two former athletes, swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who took home silver in the 1984 Olympics, and Phil Villapiano, a former Oakland Raiders linebacker, announced at the summit they planned to donate their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation's "My Legacy" campaign.
Hogshead-Makar said she planned to donate her brain to increase the understanding of concussion in women and contribute to research on lifetime participation in sports.
"Because of this concussion problem kids are dropping out of sports. ... We need to figure out how to make sports safe for kids. This is about the youth sports movement, which has long term benefits on society, on physical health, mental health," Hogshead-Makar said.
Villapiano joins three other former Raiders who pledged to donate their brains after former teammate Ken Stabler died last year. Stabler, 69, had colon cancer, but was later determined also to have CTE by Ann McKee, a neuropathologist with the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank.
"I'd go back and smash my head into anybody, any time. I loved that kind of stuff. Little did I know what has happening inside our heads," Villapiano said. "Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a big problem and all of my friends are scared to death."
Concussion Legacy Foundation director Chris Nowinski, a former WWE wrestler who retired from the profession at age 24 with post-concussion syndrome, said nearly 200 cases of CTE have been diagnosed in the 325 brains preserved at the repository.
Most were former athletes, but a few, including former boxer Paul Pender, were veterans.
"We are just at the beginning. ... The VA is the largest funder of this research. It's the perfect partnership as the most common victims of CTE are athletes and veterans," Nowinski said.
Multiple concussions are known to contribute to a host of symptoms, from migraine headaches and insomnia to cognitive decline, irritability and fatigue. CTE is a progressive brain disease caused by the buildup of an abnormal protein in the tissue. It is linked to memory loss, confusion, problems of impulse control and dementia.
In March, NFL senior vice president for health and safety Jeff Miller said the organization believes there is a link between degenerative brain diseases and football-related head injuries, but also noted that the data is scant regarding the prevalence of CTE among players.
While researchers are working to develop imaging techniques or blood tests to diagnose CTE in living individuals, it only can be diagnosed at this point after death.
The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is maintained at the Boston VA Medical Center. Current and former athletes, as well as military personnel,can pledge to donate their brain and spinal cords to the CTE Center after death.
"We are working to create a culture of brain donation in the United States. That's my job, I ask for brains. I do it all the time" Nowinski said.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.