The University of Pittsburgh announced Thursday that it will introduce the National Sports Brain Bank, a research program aimed to study degenerative brain disorders that most often affect people that play contact sports.

They unveiled the program in a news conference featuring neurologists from Pitt and two legendary Steelers running backs, Jerome Bettis and Merril Hoge. Dr. Julia Kofler, a neuropathologist, will be the director of the NSBB, which will eventually keep a collection of brains of athletes from all levels who pledge to donate after their deaths.

Funded by multiple charities, including the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Chuck Noll Foundation for Brain Injury Research, the NSBB hopes to provide answers about disorders with unknown causes, symptoms and treatments, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS. 

“This will build very important research for the international research community,” Kofler said. 

CTE, the degenerative disorder often linked to former football players, will be a particular focus. At the moment, CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, and there are considerable unknowns about why some have it more seriously than others. Kofler mentioned that some former football players live healthily into their 70s and 80s, while some exhibit signs of CTE much earlier in life.

“There’s a huge range of vulnerability, and we don’t really know what makes one person more vulnerable than others,” Kofler said.

The NSBB will be a long-term project that will go beyond studying the brains of deceased people. It will study the habits, patterns and head traumas of the living, a diverse group of people including everyone from non-athletes to high school players to professional athletes. The goal is establishing causation for the varying reactions of people’s bodies to head trauma. 

It is a long-term process.

“Don’t expect things to happen very fast; in science, we move slowly,” Oscar Lopez, a neurologist at Pitt, said. “In 10 years, we will look back and say we have been very successful.”

Bettis and Hoge have pledged to participate in the brain bank. 

“Hopefully, my donation will help the next generation benefit, so we are all more understanding of the issues we’re facing as a sport,” Bettis said.

Harrison, a rising senior at Denison University, is a Union Progress summer intern. Email him at

Harrison Hamm

Harrison, a rising senior at Denison University, is a Union Progress summer intern. Email him at