Bostonia Magazine (October 1, 2010): Game Changers

Publication Date: 
Fri, 10/01/2010

Under the microscope, the tan image with brown splotches resembles a burned map, its edges singed and riddled with dark squiggles that shouldn't be there. This is a piece of brain from a 45-year-old man:  Former National Football League linebacker John Grimsley, who suited up for the Houston Oilers for nine years and absorbed at least 11 concussions during professional and college play.

In the years leading up to his death, Grimsley had changed. He became forgetful and scattered, quick to anger, flying into a rage over household garbage, certainly not the man Virginia Grimsely had married. When he forgot about the engagement party for his son and future daughter-in-law, Virginia knew something was gravely wrong. "We'd been talking about the party every day for the past week," she said at the time. "I was shocked."

Ann McKee, a School of Medicine associate professor of neurology and pathology, slips the sliver of brain from the microscope and pulls another from a wooden tray of slides. In the viewfinder, there are brown commas, tangled grammar everywhere. "This is his frontal cortex," she says. 'this is the part responsible for infight, judgment and intellect. It's completely congested and filled with tau, an abnormal protein that forms tangles that strangle and destroy brain cells."