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After visiting a U lab, ataxia volunteer finds new hope for the future

Brian Kraft with his wife, Annemarie, and daughters (from left), 6-year-old Gabby, 4-year-old Evelyn, and 8-year-old Lauren. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

A former college baseball player, Brian Kraft just wasn’t seeing the ball quite like he used to. While playing recreational softball five years post-college, he felt too clumsy—like his skills were diminishing faster than they should.

“I was just thinking there was something not right with me,” he says.

When his father was diagnosed with a hereditary form of ataxia in 2006, Kraft couldn’t help but wonder if he, too, had the disease. His suspicion was confirmed the following year.

Spinocerebellar ataxias generally affect a person’s balance, speech, and eye movements. The specific form of ataxia that affects Kraft and his father, spinocerebellar ataxia type 7, also causes visual problems such as progressive macular degeneration.

It all made sense. But the news was a huge blow to Kraft and his family. Kraft admits that he had a hard time trying to stay positive.

But as he has become involved with the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center at the University of Minnesota—first through events and now as a member of its board of directors—Kraft says he has felt a greater sense of purpose.

And he feels more hopeful about his future after touring the University’s ataxia research labs. Now that he’s starting to understand some of the “amazing” science happening here—from early-stage mouse studies to the promise that potentially therapeutic stem cells could be made from a patient’s own skin cells—he’s even more impressed.

“For the first time, I think we can actually cure this thing,” Kraft says. “Up until [the tour], I felt like we were still so far away.”

Today a more optimistic Kraft is trying to focus on what he can do. Though it took him about 15 strokes more to complete a round of golf this summer than it would have five years ago, he still played. And this winter he is looking forward to playing in the snow with his three daughters.

Kraft, 39, says he just tries to keep a new goal in mind. “Now when I go out, I say, ‘I’m just going to enjoy the day.’”

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