Brain health and traumatic brain injuries is the focus of a Boston-based summit this week organized by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The second annual "Brain Trust" includes a day of keynote speeches and breakout sessions on brain research Wednesday, and a day of innovation pitches to improve brain technologies Thursday.
I took a lot of brain trauma over my life and that’s why I transitioned from getting hit in the head all the time to researching the issue and trying to make changes to protect other athletes...
WGBH Morning Edition host Bob Seay spoke with the executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Chris Nowinski, who discussed why it’s important to study brain injuries.
Nowinski said research shows that traumatic brain injuries, like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), can have a significant effect on veterans, athletes, and others, by negatively impacting quality of life.
He speaks from experience: Nowinski played football at Harvard and was a WWE wrestler, and he says he still feels the effects of a particularly bad concussion from 2003.
“I took a lot of brain trauma over my life,” he said. “That’s why I transitioned from getting hit in the head all the time to researching the issue and trying to make changes to protect other athletes, because I really sort of destroyed my health from getting hit in the head too much.”
After sharing the latest research on traumatic brain injuries, the summit will explore innovations in brain technologies. Nowinski says that the effect of injuries to the brain and the measurement of those effects using biomarkers are not easily understood, so he expects there will be a lot of discussion regarding how best to diagnosis brain injuries and treat them.
Representatives from companies such as GE, IBM, and Amazon will also be at the event to establish “public and private partnerships” to work on brain technologies.
“The reality is there’s so little we know about brain injury and effective treatment that there’s a lot of room for growth,” he said.
Boston University is researching CTE with a brain bank of more than 400 brains that have been donated over the last nine years from athletes and veterans. They have diagnosed 300 new cases of CTE using those brains, which is significant given that only 45 CTE cases had been pathologically confirmed before 2008.
“We’re really wrapping our arms around the fact that thousands of blows to the head over a lifetime can trigger a degenerative process that can really destroy your brain over time,” Nowinski said.
A recent report from the Boston Herald found that the VA – which is hosting the event – has mishandled one out of six traumatic brain injury claims at the VA benefits office in Boston. VA Secretary David Shulkin is attending the event to talk about his vision for the organization.
The forum is hosted by the VA, but head traumas affect more than veterans. The “Brain Trust” will also discuss how to help and research civilians and athletes with traumatic head injuries.
“Any treatment or any research that’s helping one group is going to help the others,” said Nowinski.
Because this is the second year of the summit, the program will also discuss research and technological advancements from the past year. Successful partnerships built during the last year will also be highlighted throughout the two day summit.
To listen to the entire interview between Bob Seay and Chris Nowinski, click the audio link above.