University of Washington neurosurgeon Rich Ellenbogen was on the sidelines at a Seahawks game last year when he got word that “the boss” wanted to see him.
That would be the top boss, team owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
“I’d never met him before,” recalled Ellenbogen, who volunteers as a neurological specialist for the Seahawks and the NFL.
But the UW scientist was thrilled to discover what was on Allen’s mind: concussion and brain injury, and what researchers could do to better understand the problem.
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That conversation led to a Seattle-based collaboration launched Thursday — and bankrolled by Allen’s foundation — to study the way blows to the head can damage the brain. Among the questions the scientists hope to answer is whether even mild concussions early in life can lead to dementia decades later.
“I think we can answer some of these questions better than anybody else in the world because of the resources we have,” said Dr. Eric Larson, vice president of research for Group Health, which is involved in the study.
Shrugged off for years as a part of football, repeated concussions have now been linked to permanent brain damage and other neurological problems. Claims by thousands of former players led to a $750 million payout from the NFL earlier this year.
At the same time, the physical and mental fallout from head injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking a toll on a generation of veterans.
Allen, who has a longstanding fascination with neuroscience, is concerned about the long-term effects of traumatic-brain injuries, said Kathy Richmond, science officer for the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
As the NFL’s richest owner — and the only one with his own brain-research lab — Allen also has the means and inclination to help tackle the problem scientifically.
“He recognized the importance of this, and how many outstanding questions there are,” said Richmond. “He’s interested in getting to those answers, no matter what they are.”
The key to the Seattle project is Group Health’s collection of more than 500 brains, donated by patients over the past 25 years as part of an ongoing study of cognitive function and aging.
The brain bank is the largest in the world drawn from a general population, Larson said. And nearly 1 in 5 donors suffered some type of head trauma during their lives, as a result of everything from falls and car accidents to combat-related blast injuries.
During the two-year, $2.4 million study, scientists at the UW and the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle will examine the brains at the structural, cellular and molecular levels, looking for changes related to traumatic-brain injury.
Because of the detailed health records on file for each patient, the researchers should be able to draw correlations between head injuries and later health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease.
“If I get in a car accident in my 20s, does that mean I’m going to get dementia in my 70s?” asked Ellenbogen, chairman of the UW Department of Neurosurgery. “Right now, we don’t know.”
The research might also reveal whether some people are more vulnerable to brain injury than others, because of their genes, Ellenbogen added.
Few of the people who donated their brains to Group Health experienced the kind of repeated head trauma common among professional athletes and military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said psychiatrist Elaine Peskind, who studies brain injury at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System.
But the new research will provide valuable insights into how any kind of head injury can disrupt the connections between neurons and brain regions, said Peskind, who is not involved in the project.
All of the data will be freely available to researchers around the world, said Ed Lein of the Allen Institute.
“That will accelerate the whole field,” Lein said.
The institute is Allen’s single biggest philanthropic venture, receiving $500 million so far from the man who ranks number 23 on Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” list.
Scientists at the institute use cutting-edge methods to map out brain structure and function.
The molecular and genetic atlases they have compiled of the human and mouse brain are accessed online by more than 40,000 researchers every month.
Officials from the NFL will visit the institute in early December, when the Seahawks face off against the New Orleans Saints, Ellenbogen said.
The NFL has already donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health for research on concussions and other health issues and is exploring possible collaborations with Seattle scientists, he said.
Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org