One Brain at a Time Outagamie County

Ann McKee, neuropathologist

Photo by Tracy Powell

Ann McKee ’75 is at the center of a struggle between heart and head.

Her heart belongs to football. “I love football,” she says. “Everyone knows that. I come from a very heavily football family.”

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Data Source: University of Wisconsin Service Center

But McKee’s head belongs to science. As a neuropathologist, her chosen science is head science: the study of brains. And what her head tells her is that football is literally beating some players’ brains into incoherence — and tragically, they won’t realize it until it’s too late to prevent an early and excruciating death.

“It’s very frightening,” McKee says. “Here’s this game that we all love so much, and though we don’t see any visible injuries, it can cause these devastating effects.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, McKee went on to medical school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland before taking on three different residencies: in internal medicine, neurology, and finally neuropathology. She moved on to faculty positions first at Harvard and then at Boston University, where today she is the director of the chronic traumatic encephalopathy center.

“There are a lot of fascinating systems in medicine, but there’s nothing that compares to the nervous system.”

For more than 30 years, McKee has focused her energy on neurodegenerative diseases. She’s examined the brains of hundreds of former football players, boxers, and other athletes, and she and her Boston University colleagues have published a series of articles that reveal and define the ravages that years of continual pounding can cause: a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. McKee has studied more athletes’ brains than any other neuropathologist, and her work and discoveries have helped to transform how we think of and treat concussions today.

One of the things that drive her is the massive scientific frontier of the human nervous system.

“There are a lot of fascinating systems in medicine, but there’s nothing that compares to the nervous system,” she says. “There’s so much we don’t know about what the mind is and what the brain is. It’s a huge mystery.”

Thank you, Outagamie County, for Ann McKee: a true pioneer of science whose knowledge base grew at UW–Madison and whose work has helped to reveal the once-hidden devastations of traumatic brain injuries.