With Cantu, Nowinski founded the Sports Legacy Institute, which is now affiliated with Boston University School of Medicine. In 2008 SLI and BU created The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to conduct state-of-the art medical research on CTE. The center maintains a brain bank of more 90 donated brains. Nowinski is codirector of the center and serves as its chief brain recruiter.
While Nowinski still makes the difficult call to families asking for brain donations, his work is becoming so well known that families of deceased athletes often initiate the contact. He says he's amazed at how brain donations are becoming an accepted part of sports. "People tell me that they were expecting my call and that the player discussed wanting to make a brain donation." Several hundred athletes have already agreed to donate their brains to CSTE when they die.
One of CSTE's best known cases involves the brain of former NFL player Dave Duerson. The 50-year-old committed suicide in February 2011. He left a note and text message directing his family to donate his brain for research. He was diagnosed with a moderately advanced case of CTE overall but the pathology was severe in areas of the brain that influence impulse control, inhibition, emotion, and memory.
Deaths like Waters' and Duerson's used to be attributed to emotional problems, notes Nowinski. "Every athlete that lost their mind just missed their sport. Now we're discovering that they have degenerative brain disease."