Why does it take death to make a diagnosis?

robert stern The professor of neurology will lead a $16 million NIH-funded study on former NFL players and college football players with the goal of developing a tool for diagnosing the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy while the patient is still alive.
Ann mckee The School of Medicine professor of neurology and pathology is a pioneer in the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and has examined the brains of more than 200 deceased individuals.

We’ve all seen the headlines. Football players skidding off the rails after too many hits to the head, wracked by depression, drug abuse, violence, dementia, even suicide. But, cruelly, the cause of these life-shattering disruptions can only be uncovered on the autopsy table.

All that may change if BU scientists realize an ambitious vision: a diagnostic test to detect the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former contact sport athletes while they’re still alive.

CTE is linked with repetitive brain trauma and marked by changes in behavior, mood, and cognition. Today it can only be diagnosed in a postmortem brain, leaving its victims and loved ones to suffer through erratic symptoms and providing only a moving target when it comes to treatment. The disease has not only been found in professional football players, boxers, and hockey players, but in college and high school athletes. Parents now think twice about letting their kids suit up for youth football.

Last spring, some 50 scientists—from BU’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health, the Cleveland Clinic, the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, the Mayo Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and other major institutions around the country—gathered on campus to launch a landmark, seven-year, $16 million National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke–funded study. The BU-led effort will examine 120 former NFL players, 60 former college football players, and 60 control subjects. Data will be shared with researchers worldwide.

Grants &

While the federal funding landscape remains fiercely competitive and the pool of government dollars more or less stagnant, our faculty received $368.9 million in sponsored program awards in FY2016, up 13 percent from the year before. Below are some of our notable awards:

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center awarded the Center for Regenerative Medicine $1.74 million to build a new lung regeneration facility, and dispersed two smaller awards to the Photonics Center and Biomedical Laboratory & Clinical Sciences program.

The John Templeton Foundation awarded Kathleen Corriveau, an assistant professor at the School of Education, more than $1 million to study the role of religious exposure in a child’s concept of the invisible and the impossible.

Vivien Schmidt, a political science professor at the College of Arts & Sciences, received a $104,000 award from the European Commission of the European Union for a project to promote greater knowledge of the European Union and the value and significance of the EU-US relationship.

Douglas Densmore, a College of Engineering associate professor, received a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead a comprehensive effort to quantify synthetic biology using a computing engineering approach.

A three-year, $405,000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation went to Tracy Battaglia, a School of Medicine associate professor of medicine and epidemiology, to help train underrepresented minority graduate students at the School of Public Health on breast cancer disparities experienced by low-income patients.

Led by School of Public Health principal investigator Jane Fox, the Health & Disability Working Group will get a boost in their ongoing work to improve HIV care, thanks to a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

School of Dental Medicine faculty members Woosung Sohn and Athanasios Zavras were awarded a $2.8 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to implement an educational framework for a new, integrated, multidisciplinary clinical care model for vulnerable children.

BU’s Sponsored Program Awards FY2000–2016*

$ millions
*Excluding Financial Aid. FY2004 includes $128 million for the construction of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). Awards in FY2009–FY2011 reflect funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

The research, headed up by Robert Stern, the clinical core director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center and clinical research director of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, builds on the groundbreaking work of School of Medicine Professor of Neurology and Pathology Ann McKee, director of the CTE Center and associate director of BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. McKee first identified the telltale mark of CTE—tiny tangles of a protein called tau, clustered around blood vessels—in the dissected brain of a boxer who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The die-hard Green Bay Packers fan has since studied the brains of more than 200 deceased individuals.

“Our research on CTE is about people,” she says. “We do this because we are speaking for those people who can’t speak for themselves any longer. We tell their stories because people need to know.”