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HL20: Chris Nowinski—Collecting Brains, Combating Concussions

Margaret Dick Tocknell, for HealthLeaders Media, December 13, 2011

The 33-year-old says he still struggles with some of the effects of multiple concussions. "I can't exercise at 100% without getting a headache. I take medication for my headaches that also enhances my cognition. I'm still highly functional but I'm definitely different," Nowinski says. He doesn't have any trouble reading or driving, but concentrating can be a problem when he doesn't take his medication.

Nowinski spent hours in the Harvard library reading about concussions. His research led him to conclude that athletes were "all just being lied to about the consequences of playing some sports."

He realized he had been "recklessly hitting my head for 19 years" without ever hearing about concussions. "No one talked to the athletes about [concussions], so we never said anything when we were dizzy or seeing double."

His research led him to write Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis to educate parents, coaches, medical professionals, and others about the long-term effects of brain trauma.

He realized that people needed physical evidence to change their minds and started actively pursuing brains for study. He began calling families of deceased athletes asking for brain donations for research.

His first brain—or rather brain tissue—came from Andre Waters, a former NFL defensive back who committed suicide in 2006. Examination of Waters' brain tissue produced evidence that the 44-year-old suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, which is a progressive degenerative disease related to repetitive brain trauma.

Nowinski's campaign to publicize those results is credited with driving the national discussion about the effect of repetitive brain trauma on athletes.

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