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The University of Pittsburgh today announced the launch of a National Sports Brain Bank (NSBB) to create a resource to study anyone from professional athletes to recreational athletes who participated in an array of contact sports.
NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis and former Steelers running back Merril Hoge pledged to stand among the first group of professional athletes to participate in the brain bank. They were joined in this pledge by two nationally recognized neurosurgeons who played Division I contact sports: Joseph Maroon, a Pitt neurosurgeon, and Regis Haid, past president of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
The interdisciplinary bank will be led by Julia Kofler, director of the Division of Neuropathology in the School of Medicine and co-director of the University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Kofler and her team will annually evaluate participants over the course of their lives and perform detailed neuropathological examinations of their brains after death, looking for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and other neurodegenerative disease processes. Participants do not need to have experienced a known concussion or exhibit any symptoms. At-risk athletes from a wide range of disciplines are invited, including the traditional contact sports of football, hockey, soccer, boxing and wrestling, but participation is also open to other activities with increased concussion risk such as cheerleading, equestrian and motocross.
The new bank is both a donation registry for former contact sports athletes and the epicenter of long-term observational studies — including longitudinal, yearslong looks into individuals’ medical, behavioral and mental health.
“The NSBB will provide an invaluable resource for researchers nationally who are seeking to answer major, remaining questions about the links between contact sports and neurodegenerative disorders,” said Anantha Shekhar, the University of Pittsburgh’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine. “By recruiting from a broad base of former athletes who played various sports either as students, amateurs or professionals, and also collecting longitudinal clinical information to correlate with later neuropathologic findings, this approach will gather robust datasets not previously available from such a diverse cohort of sports participants.”
Exposure to concussions or mild or traumatic brain injury has been found to increase later-in-life risks of cognitive and psychiatric syndromes as well as the development of the neurodegenerative disease CTE. The brain bank’s leadership will participate in collaborative studies across the United States and internationally in an effort to refine histopathologic and diagnostic criteria regarding CTE and other neurodegenerative processes as part of their peer-review, shareable-research objectives.
“The mission of the NSBB is to create a deeply characterized cohort of participants with follow-up brain autopsy information, to be shared with their families as well,” Kofler said. “The data and tissue samples also will be made widely available to the research community for studies into epidemiology, risk factors and mechanisms of trauma-associated neurodegenerative diseases.
“At the same time as concern hovers around the safety of some contact sports, there is a scarcity of brain tissue available to study the brains of individuals who have experienced such traumatic brain injury events. The NSBB registry and brain tissue resource is a huge step in trying to close this gap.”
The NSBB will build upon a collection of more than 2,000 specimens in the well-established neurodegenerative brain bank in the Division of Neuropathology, which can be utilized for comparative analyses.
The Chuck Noll Foundation provided the initial funding to launch the NSBB with a gift of $125,000, which The Pittsburgh Foundation matched. In its six-year history of donating toward brain injury research, the Chuck Noll Foundation, named for the late Hall of Fame Steelers coach, has disbursed 19 grants totaling $2.6 million. The Richard King Mellon Foundation also awarded $500,000 to help to launch this new brain bank.
“I am pleased that the Chuck Noll Foundation is able to provide this grant to support the research being conducted by the National Sports Brain Bank at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Arthur J. Rooney II, chair of the Chuck Noll Foundation board of directors. “This is one of several grants made by the Noll Foundation to the University, including research into biomarkers and precision treatment of concussions.”
— Chuck Finder, photography by Johnathan Wright
How you can help
At-risk athletes with or without signs of concussion can participate in the study. Register to donate to the National Sports Brain Bank.