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By On March 14th, 2019

Cyclist Kelly Catlin’s family donates her brain to CTE research after suicide

Kelly Catlin (left) at the UCI Track World Championships 2018
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Nicola

Last week, Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin – who helped lead the U.S. women’s pursuit team to win the silver medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games – committed suicide just months after experiencing a debilitating concussion.

Now, her family says they are donating her brain to the Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation Brain Bank in the hope of getting answers about the brain injury they believe led to her death.

“Our family decided to have a neuropathologic examination performed on Kelly’s brain to investigate any possible damage caused by her recent head injury and seek explanations for recent neurologic symptoms,” her father, Mark, told The Washington Post.

Kelly was not only a leading athlete but a promising student who was studying computational and mathematical engineering at Stanford University. Until recently, her family says she had always been a whiz in almost everything she did.

“[Kelly] had such a bright future. She was so multi-talented,” Mark described to PEOPLE. “There was so much about life that she enjoyed and [her recent concussion] was such as temporary setback that she couldn’t see through.”

The brain injury occurred during a race in December, and her family says they immediately saw changes in her personality and behavior.

“My wife and I talked to her weekly on the phone and she started to express apathy about cycling, which she’d never done before,” Mark said. “She had a lack of enthusiasm for the Olympic team, for training, for everything in life. We were concerned. She ran herself down. She had these mental issues and she started to feel trapped.”

In January, Kelly attempted suicide for the first time and entered physical and mental health treatment for two weeks before returning to Stanford. Still, the symptoms, depression, and personality changes persisted.

“Everything was open to her, but somehow her thinking was changed and she couldn’t see beyond, I guess, her depression,” Mark described to The Post. “After her concussion, she started embracing nihilism. Life was meaningless. There was no purpose. This was a person with depression. For her, she could no longer concentrate on her studies or train as hard. She couldn’t fulfill what she felt were her obligations to herself, she couldn’t live up to her own standards. She couldn’t realize that what she needed to do was get away and rest, heal. We were all searching for the magic words, that life was worth living.”

While Dr. Ann McKee, leading brain injury pathologist at Boston University’s brain bank, says it could take up to a year to have conclusive findings of what led to Kelly Catlin’s death, she says Catlin’s story lines up with many other cases of brain injury-related suicide.

“Those are unfortunately common symptoms of a brain injury such as concussion, although the symptoms can have many other causes,” she wrote. “The goal of our research is to enable novel insights into concussive and sub-concussive injury in a way no other research can. By understanding the ways that the human brain reacts to concussive injury, we are hoping to discover new ways to diagnose concussion during life and develop effective treatments.”

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