As the conversation around traumatic brain injury (TBI) continues, more and more professional athletes have come forward to share their concerns and offer their bodies for research. Today, The New York Times reported that retired soccer star Brandi Chastain has arranged to donate her brain to science after she dies in order to further research into a form of TBI called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a progressive, degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. It was originally known as dementia pugilistica, or boxers’ dementia, for its prevalence among professional fighters. Like other forms of TBI, CTE can cause memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, aggression, and, eventually, progressive dementia. There's currently only one reliable way to diagnose CTE: a postmortem brain examination.
In the United States, at least, the TBI discussion has recently been dominated by its effects on professional football players. But CTE can affect players of any contact sport, and scientists say that soccer players of all ages put themselves at risk by heading the ball.
With both professional and youth sports on the line, researchers have ramped up their efforts to pinpoint the precise causes—and possible prevention of—CTE and other forms of TBI. But like so much research, there’s a huge gender imbalance in the study subjects. As The New York Times noted, Boston University CTE researchers have examined 307 brains, and only seven of those belonged to women.
So Chastain decided to step up. At 47, the soccer star and youth coach has no plans to die anytime soon, but she’s glad to make the arrangements now. “People talk about what the '99 group did for women’s soccer,” she told The New York Times, referring to the 1999 World Cup win by the U.S. women's national soccer team. “They say, 'Oh, you left a legacy for the next generation.' This would be a more substantial legacy—something that could protect and save some kids, and to enhance and lift up soccer in a way that it hasn’t before.”
Chastain is the second national women's soccer team player to decide to donate her brain; the first was Cindy Parlow Cone. Both brains will eventually go to a brain bank jointly run by the Concussion Legacy Foundation, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Boston University School of Medicine, the Washington Post reports.
Now Chastain intends to persuade some of her former teammates to do the same. “I’m trying to get [Abby Wambach] to come onboard because I think she will be an interesting brain study, decades from now, as the player who scored 75 goals with her head and probably put her head into places, like Michelle Akers, where they probably didn’t belong. How many times did she hit her head on the ground after being run over by somebody?”
Learning about the research on CTE has convinced Chastain that heading the ball is a bad idea—especially for children. “My teams, my young team, U-10 Santa Clara Sporting, will not be heading the ball,” she told The New York Times. "And if it means giving up a goal, that’s O.K. Or we don’t score one, no problem.”
[h/t The New York Times]