Three decades of fighting for brain health

U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) has established himself as a champion of brain health. The 86-year-old Army veteran has represented the Ninth Congressional District since 2013 and served in the House since 1997. During this time, he has leveraged his leadership in several ways to protect the brains of Americans. First, in October 2008, after the death of a young boy in his district who returned to playing football without having fully recovered from a concussion sustained earlier in the season, Pascrell introduced the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools Act (ConTACT), which has been endorsed by the National Football League, the National Football League Players Association, and the Brain Injury Association of America. ConTACT brings together a conference of experts to produce a guidelines for the treatment and care of concussions for middle- and high-school students. It also provides funding for schools’ adoption of baseline and post-injury neuropsychological testing technologies. Later in his tenure, in 2013, Rep. Pascrell introduced the Traumatic Brain Injury Reauthorization Act of 2013 (H.R. 1098; 113th Congress), a bill that reauthorized appropriations for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projects to reduce the incidence of traumatic brain injury and projects related to track and monitor traumatic brain injuries. The National Academy of Neuropsychology is honored to celebrate the leadership of Rep. Pascrell at its forthcoming annual conference in Philadelphia. In advance of that event, BrainWise Managing Editor Matt Villano spoke with Rep. Pascrell about his work and his commitment to brain health. What follows is a transcript of that exchange.

BrainWise: Why did you get into politics in the first place?

Rep. Bill Pascrell: A native son of New Jersey, I have built a life of public service around the principles I learned while growing up on the south side of Paterson. My parents and Italian-immigrant grandparents instilled the value of being a bridge builder: one who seeks to bring together the diverse peoples and neighborhoods in our communities to forge a better society. I was proud to serve in the New Jersey State Assembly in the 1980s and became mayor of my hometown Paterson in 1990. I entered Congress in 1997.

BrainWise: Since you became an elected official, you have been a champion of more than 6 million Americans who live with debilitating brain injuries. What sparked your interest in fighting for these issues, and how did you come to recognize this important group of citizens?

Rep. Pascrell: It bothered me that these Americans were too often being forgotten. Traumatic brain injury is a devastating debilitation that impacts not just its victims, but also their families and friends. I felt these Americans needed a champion in Washington and I have tried to be that champion. I founded the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force in 2001 to increase awareness of brain injury in the United States. [The organization also] supports research initiatives for rehabilitation and potential cures, and strives to address the effects such injuries have on families, children, education, and the workforce.

BrainWise: What inspired you to create this task force? What is the work of this group?

Rep. Pascrell: In 1998, I met a Clifton, New Jersey, constituent named Dennis Benigno, whose 15-year-old son had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury from an automobile accident that left him disabled. The Benigno family’s passion and dedication in finding a cure for their son and millions of others was my inspiration to act in Congress. Through the Task Force, I work on a bipartisan basis to raise public awareness of brain injuries among Americans of all stripes. We try to bring both federal support and public support to bear here. Public awareness is everything.

BrainWise: You co-chair the task force with Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska. At this time of such division in Congress it appears that you have been able to work across the aisle for this important cause. How?

Rep. Pascrell: On commonsense issues, compromise is not just possible but essential. When I speak with my Democratic and Republican colleagues on the need to raise awareness for brain injuries, they understand, and they are eager to get involved. Both parties working together has helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars to advance awareness and support those with traumatic brain injuries. We have passed legislation that recognizes the life-altering impact and supports researching into brain injuries that has affected millions of Americans.

BrainWise:  You have also been instrumental in bringing awareness to those who have experienced blast injuries; this resulted in The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Why was that act so important, and why is it so important to help those who have suffered from these traumatic brain injuries?

Rep. Pascrell: This federal support has been critical to aid Traumatic Brain Injury victims. It is one thing to talk the talk and another to walk the walk. Politicians can speak a big game, but enacting actual federal aid is the key, and we have done that with these pieces of legislation we have gotten signed into law. That bill included language that I pushed for on blast exposure. Specifically, my language ensures blast exposure history will be recorded in medical records of servicemembers, requiring the enclosure of critical details including the date and duration of the incident. The National Academy of Medicine has concluded that servicemembers with blast exposure history are at increased risk of long-term health issues, including depression, Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, seizures, and problems with social functioning. Optimizing the readiness of servicemembers and recording blast exposure data is essential so that soldiers receive proper care for any service-connected medical issues that may arise later.

BrainWise: Finally, the issue of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is one we see grabbing a lot of headlines these days. Research into what causes this is ongoing, and early studies indicate CTE is not as connected to repeated head injuries as the mainstream media has portrayed. To what extent do you think our government should get involved in regulating activities that could potentially lead to CTE?

Rep. Pascrell: I think it starts with focusing a bright light on these problems. Congress can do that very well with hearings, public events, and public statements.  I have demanded answers from leading sporting organizations about how they are protecting athletes and students. Our kids and future generations are learning more and more about these harms, and we cannot treat them lightly.