An MIT Alumni Association Publication

In 2009, Daniel Danesh­var ’05 was studying neurode­generative diseases at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Boston University when a 6’8” man walked in and altered the course of his work. The man was Chris Nowinski, a former defensive tackle at Harvard University. Also known as WWE wres­tler Chris Harvard, Nowinski had recently retired because of concussions. (Daneshvar and his wife, Marta Garcia Daneshvar ’09, pictured above). 

“He was bouncing around from doctor to doc­tor,” says Daneshvar. “Every­one told him that his issues were psychological, because there wasn’t much under­standing about the relation­ship between his symptoms [of cognitive impairment] and concussions. I realized how little we understood about what happens to the brain after repeated hits to the head.” So Daneshvar shifted his research focus from Alzheimer’s to chronic trau­matic encephalopathy (CTE).

Daneshvar was a coau­thor on a major study, pub­lished in the Journal of the American Medical Asso­ciation in 2017, which found that among deceased NFL players’ brains donated by their families, 99 percent had CTE.

Daneshvar, now a resident at Stanford med school, helps run the largest CTE brain bank in the world.

The response to this study has been game-changing for athletes from grade school to the top ech­elons of professional sports. But for Daneshvar, the find­ings mark a milestone. In 2009, he began to observe links between brain trauma and symptoms of CTE— such as depression, memory loss, aggression, demen­tia, and cognitive, behavior, and motor impairment. So he and his BU colleagues focused on the pathologic diagnosis of the disease, which meant getting brain samples from the families of deceased athletes. He hopes his work will lead to improved diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases.

Today, he is a resident at the Stanford University School of Medicine and helps run the largest CTE brain bank in the world, with more than 500 samples. Daneshvar says they are close to diagnosis in a liv­ing brain using technologies like PET scans, which would provide opportunities for clinical trials and insights on treating and curing the dis­ease. 

As Daneshvar began researching CTE, he also started the first scientifically validated concussion educa­tion program for kids, Team Up Against Concussions, which has taught more than 25,000 student-athletes nationwide about the risks of repeated head injuries.

Recent research indi­cates that CTE isn’t only a concern for athletes, but can affect other populations, such as victims of domestic violence and military vet­erans. “It includes hits that weren’t even bad enough to cause concussions,” says Daneshvar.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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