Concussion experts would some day like to conduct the same amount of research on head injuries among military members as they have done for football players.
One way to get there: race car drivers.
All seven members of the world’s largest hot rod team, Don Schumacher Racing, on Friday pledged their brains to concussion research as part of an effort geared to reach military members as much as racing fans.
Through its sponsorship with the US Army, Schumacher connected with the Infinite Hero Foundation, a nonprofit that works with the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF).
CLF has received pledges of more than 3,500 brains to conduct postmortem research on the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — a disease linked to repetitive head injuries seen in football and other contact sports, as well as in military personnel.
Research involving military cases lags far behind that for football, hockey and other sports, in large part because military injuries do not receive as much media attention as those in sports, experts say.
“I don’t think people realize the brain impact these soldiers receive from the explosions, the IEDs [improvised explosive devices], the traumas,” Schumacher said.
Only about 5 percent of brain donors are military members who do not also play contact sports, CLF chief executive Chris Nowinski said.
“It’s absolutely an urgent need,” Nowinski said. “The relationship between brain trauma and mental health is an area that needs more investigation. Brain donation is really the gold standard for understanding the effects of brain trauma.”
Ann McKee, a lead researcher on the impact of CTE, on Thursday was part of a panel discussion with veterans, where part of the discussion involved the heart-wrenching difficulty involved in getting military families to donate their loved one’s brains to research.
“But we need to know about military injuries,” she said. “We know there are commonalities between blasts [from military operations] and impact [from sports], but we’ve got a half-dozen to a dozen military cases we’ve studied, and we’re not capturing [enough data].”
Although hundreds of football players have made pledges, Schumacher Racing’s effort represents the first full sports team to make such a move.
Dale Earnhardt Jr recently pledged his brain and NASCAR has supported CLF’s efforts, but there is much less research in auto racing than other team sports.
When Schumacher presented his drivers with the idea, he said they all signed on immediately.
“We always challenge each and everybody out here, each and every week: ‘What’s the legacy you’re going to leave behind?’” Schumacher driver Antron Brown said. “When this project came up, all our hands went up and we said: ‘We’re all in.’”
Morgan Luttrell, a US Navy SEAL-turned-scientist whose twin brother, Marcus, wrote the bestseller Lone Survivor, is also part of the project.
“These drivers lay it out on the line every day at the wheel,” he said. “Mr Schumacher and his team, I won’t say there was an epiphany, but the fact this came together, it’s amazing.”