Ann McKee (MED ’79) is a pioneer in her field—and she’s spent almost a decade challenging the National Football League over what’s happening on its fields across the country.
As a professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University (BU) School of Medicine, director of BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center and chief of neuropathology services for the VA New England Healthcare System, McKee studies the long-term impact of repetitive head injuries and concussions on the health of football players and others who face such traumas.
“No detailed evidence like that existed before her contribution,” P. Hunter Peckham, Distinguished University Professor and Donnell Institute Professor of Biomedical Engineering, said in a 2015 profile of McKee for Think magazine. “She’s probably identified as one of the—if not the—world’s leaders in brain pathology and sports injury in brain concussion.”
Now, the alumna is being recognized on the international stage: as part of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, on the list of “pioneers.”
In TIME’s profile of McKee, Chris Borland, a former San Francisco 49ers linebacker who retired from the NFL at age 24 over worry about continued brain injury, touted the alumna’s research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease that results in the presence of lesions of an abnormal protein in the brain.
With CTE, areas of the brain begin deteriorating over time—during the play of a high-contact sport or activity, or sometimes months, years or even decades later. Symptoms can include personality changes, violent mood swings, depression, memory loss, dementia and more. As of the publication of the Think magazine profile in 2015, McKee and her colleagues’ research has discovered signs of CTE in 87 of 91 brain tissues tested from deceased former NFL players.
Last year, McKee and her team found that former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in jail after being convicted of murder, had the worst case of CTE ever found in a young person. Earlier this year, her team released a study suggesting that CTE may not be caused by concussions, but rather by repeated head injuries. Her most recent work, as noted in places such as The Washington Post, found that playing tackle football before the age of 12 could result in earlier CTE symptoms.
“Dr. McKee’s groundbreaking work on chronic traumatic encephalopathy was central to my decision [to retire], and she may have saved my life,” he wrote. “At the very least, her work has likely spared me much of the suffering we see today among former NFL players.”
McKee, a Wisconsin native and avid Green Bay Packers fan, came to Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in the mid-1970s. After studying internal medicine, she developed a fascination with the brain because it “not only explains our physical functions, but our mind, how we think and our memories,” she said in an interview for Think. “It explains who we are.”
McKee’s fascination turned into a research passion, and, throughout her career, her center has received funding from the VA, U.S. Department of Defense, and even the NFL and World Wrestling Entertainment.
Yet when she presented her findings on CTE—first to the NFL and then on Capitol Hill—the NFL initially was dismissive. “They were like, ‘Get a doctor in the room. Who is this girl? We need somebody who knows what they’re talking about,’” she told Think in 2015. “I was stunned.”
But since the presentation of her findings nearly a decade ago, the NFL has introduced efforts to reduce concussion-related trauma: For example, it requires stricter return-to-play guidelines for players who exhibit concussion-related symptoms—including the addition of a neurological consultant who works with team physicians for in-game assessments. And, in 2010, the NFL donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for brain trauma research, some of which BU receives.
“Dr. McKee shows up to work every day. She shares her findings,” Borland wrote in his Time essay. “And she tells the truth, however uncomfortable.
“That is grace under pressure. That is the quiet courage of Dr. Ann McKee.”
McKee is listed on the list of pioneers alongside individuals such as student activists from Parkland, Florida; actress Tiffany Haddish; Olympian Chloe Kim; and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah. To see the full list, visit time.com/collection/most-influential-people-2018/.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated May 1 to reflect a new study from McKee’s research group.