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Why we need female brains in CTE research

US soccer player Brandi Chastain became a household name through her outstanding play in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She scored the championship-winning goal in the unforgettable final shoot-out in front of the world and 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Her iconic moment remains crystal clear: Fans screaming, some even crying from the emotion, as Chastain kneeled on the pitch and clutched her jersey in her right hand to celebrate the triumph of winning the her first US World Cup.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since Chastain and her teammates set in motion a soccer revolution, inspiring generations of new female athletes and soccer players. On Thursday, Chastain made another significant play, announcing a choice that could inspire other athletes to help advance our knowledge of concussions, CTE, and sports neurology.

Chastain, now 47, has pledged to donate her brain to Boston University’s CTE brain bank and the Concussion Legacy Foundation for research.

She says she is in good health, and shows no signs of neurological issues from playing on the US national team from 1988-2004. Chastain helps coach youth, high school, and college soccer, and remains active as a strong voice in international women’s soccer for player safety.

Chastain’s decision to donate is important for two reasons: She’s the highest-profile female athlete to date to make the commitment, and it also hopefully will bring to light to the serious need for women’s brains to be donated for study. Male athletes dominate concussion research, and that needs to change.

Only seven female brains, out of 307 (mostly belonging to athletes), have been examined by experts at Boston University.

In other words, we are right now significantly lacking in research about how playing sports, especially contact-driven ones, can impact the female brain. But we need more female athletes to donate brains to advance the research.

Brandi Chastain poses with Rosana dos Santos Augusto, May 2013 by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the U.S. Department of State. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Brandi Chastain (right) and Rosana dos Santos Augusto (left), May 2013 by Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the US Department of State. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“If there’s any information to be gleaned off the study of someone like myself, who has played soccer for 40 years, it feels like my responsibility — but not in a burdensome way,” Chastain told the New York Times. “People talk about what the ’99 group did for women’s soccer. 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. That was the impetus for saying yes. If we can learn something, we should.”

The meteoric post-Title IX rise of female athletic culture in the United States, which has been replicated in different degrees around the world, means there is a growing cohort of athletes to be researched. Some of biggest stars of this summer’s Rio de Janiero Summer Olympics will be the female gymnasts, divers, basketball, and soccer players.

We clearly need to know more about the brains of all athletes. We need to see how different types of sports can affect the brain. We need to look at the different amounts of exposure and their concussion risk.

There are many questions, and donations like Chastain’s can bring us closer to finding valuable answers. It’s important to note that Chastain is the second donation off the 1999 US World Cup team, with Cindy Parlow Cone having first pledged her brain.

Researchers need to maximize Chastain’s donation, and hopefully the many female and male athlete brains to come, by striving to get the most complete data. Those who donate to brain banks should be strongly encouraged to provide clinical data before death. Fully understanding the athlete’s playing and life history, plus clinical data, provides a richer picture to analyze. Also, a control subject should also be identified with the promise of each donation.

So let’s credit Chastain with scoring another big goal and hopefully touching off another wave of inspiration among athletes. Her pledge is worthy of a big ovation from all of us.

Featured image credit: Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium, Allston, Massachusetts by John Phelan. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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