She Serves

Allison Brager: ‘Unraveling’ The Brains Of Athletes And Military Members Alike

Emilee White

Allison Brager has gotten her feet wet in multiple different areas of life. From athletics to science, writing a book, and serving in the United States Military, Brager has been able to achieve one dream after another as she has subsequently knocked them off the list.

Brager’s start to her lifelong dreams happened back in high school on the track and field team when she became the first female pole vaulter in her home state of Ohio. Upon graduating from high school, the history-maker that is Brager transferred her brains and athleticism to Brown University and landed a spot on the track and field team.

Allison Brager
“I was an athlete my whole life,” Brager said. “I grew up in actually one of, at the time, the most dangerous cities in the country, Youngstown, Ohio. When I was growing up, we had the highest murder rate in the entire country for many years. I grew up lower-middle class and I think early on as a kid, you learn that your ticket out of town is to be good at sports so being good at sports was instilled in the community. Um, there’s actually, uh, a documentary on ESPN about where I grew up.”

While Brager was looking for her shot to get out of her hometown, her high school coach was already setting the path — she knew pole vaulting was going to be contested at a state meet so she recruited Brager because of her background in other sports. As a gymnast, Brager was already competing in gymnastic-type events in track and field like the 100 and 300-meter hurdles, and the long jump. Luckily for Brager, it was an easy transition to pole vaulting.

“I was only pole vaulting in the beginning, like once a month, but I worked with one of the best coaches in the country,” Brager said. “And because [the coach] instilled all those foundational skills early on, I was able to have success.”

As time went on, and her college years came and went, Brager was still very much an athlete at heart even though she was no longer competing for Brown. Transitioning to the post-college athlete career, Brager went on to compete in the CrossFit Games, and competed and won eight gold medals in the 10th Gay Olympiad.

With her athletic dreams completed, there was one dream that Brager still continued to chase, and that was to serve her country. In high school in 2003, Brager was recruited by the United States Military Academy at West Point, which was her top college choice. However, upon graduation, the U.S. went to war and Brager’s parents wouldn’t let her enlist so her military dreams were set aside.

Eventually, Brager obtained her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences and Physiology, and sometime after, she went on to get a fellowship through the National Academy of Science that happened to be the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. On her first day, the Department Chair of Military Psychiatry and Neuroscience asked Brager if she ever thought about being an army officer. Brager now refers to this as her “second call to service.”

“I’ve wanted to serve in the military my whole life,” Brager said. “None of my family were ever military, but I always just had a sense of patriotism and wanted to serve my country in some capacity, whether it was Peace Corps, public health service, or the military. So, I am in the Army, as a neuroscientist. I actually commissioned in the Army, so I came in as a captain in 2017.”
Allison Brager

But what was Brager doing after her Ph.D. and before her fellowship? She was writing a book.

Being an athlete at Brown was what inspired Brager to start doing research on the neuroscience of athleticism, but what led her to the research topic was the “hatred” she felt and saw for athletes on campus. According to Brager, if you were an athlete, a lot of the students believed they didn’t deserve to be at Brown, which she found weird considering the athletic teams had better GPAs overall than any of the non-athletes. It wasn’t until Brager started teaching courses on neuroscience at Morehouse College when she had an “aha” moment.

“One day, I was like, ‘there’s literally no research on the neuroscience of athleticism,’” Brager said. “My book was the first one to like entertain this concept. I got the ball rolling to get people to think about this, and actually my really good friend started a research society around this concept called the Society for NeuroSports. It’s crazy now to see the amount and volume of research that has been done on the neuroscience of athletics compared to when I published the book back in 2015.”

Titled Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, Brager explores three main topics in her book. Her two main topics cover the difference between athletes and non-athletes, and also how the brain differs between the two. And since Brager’s book was what seemed like the first to explore the topic of the athlete’s brain, she pushed the boundaries and wrote about why performance-enhancing drugs work from the perspective of the brain. While some of the performance-enhancing drugs that Brager examines are illegal and does not advocate for their use, she also covers legal performance-enhancing drugs, like caffeine.

Brager’s book examines the science behind the brain, which also opened up the door to the mental health conversation, and why it is just as important as any other muscle, bone, and organ in the human body. Brager explained how mental health is a trade-off of sorts. Exercise promotes better mental health, but there is always a “tipping point.”

“It’s a very common phenomenon in neuroscience where if you have too much of something, it actually has the opposite impact,” Brager said. “So there is serotonin syndrome and dopamine imbalance. You see this a lot of times in runners and ultra-endurance athletes — they’re not just addictive and obsessive about how much they train, but it also extends into other areas of their life. So, yes, mental health is absolutely huge.”
Allison Brager's Instagram

So much so that Brager was part of a group of people who were asked by the NCAA to sit on the Mental Health Advisory Board back in 2015, and wrote the first student-athlete handbook on mental health.

While the fight continues to destigmatize mental health, people like Brager are better educating people on why talking about it is important for reducing the stigma, and finding and creating resources that provide safe havens for athletes and non-athletes alike.

Photo credits: courtesy of Allison Brager and her Instagram