You remember Brandi Chastain, she of the jersey-removing, sports-bra-revealing episode of the late ’90s, after the U.S. women’s national soccer team won the World Cup in 1999. This is not, it seems, the only legacy she is interested in leaving behind. The New York Times reports Thursday that Chastain has agreed to donate her brain to science — more specifically, to the study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
This is a big deal. So far, scientists have yet to find evidence of the degenerative brain disease in a female athlete’s brain. But, then again, that’s likely because so few female athletes have been studied. As Times writer John Branch reports:
No female athletes have been found to have had C.T.E.— it has been found in the brains of women with histories of head trauma — but the sample size has been small. Researchers at Boston University have examined 307 brains, most of which belonged to athletes. Only seven of them were women’s.
Right now, CTE can only be diagnosed in a postmortem examination. But in life, as the disease progresses, it can lead to memory loss, depression, and dementia, as well as behavioral changes, like aggression or impulse-control problems. The scientists who are leading the research on CTE work have focused largely on football players, and so far their findings have been grim. Last fall, for instance, a report from those Boston University scientists, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, found evidence of CTE in 96 percent of the NFL players in their study.
But new evidence is suggesting that soccer, too, may lead to the progressive degeneration of the brain. Chastain is not the first female professional soccer player to pledge to donate her brain to CTE research; her former teammate Cindy Parlow Cone has, too. Both Chastain and Cone have spent much of their post-professional-athlete lives pushing for reform in the youth game, arguing that new evidence of the long-lasting impact of concussion should lead to stricter rules about heading the ball.
Incidentally, recent retiree Abby Wambach — who has scored more goals than any player, in any nation, of either gender — is famous for literally using her head in the game, scoring 75 goals that way. Wambach, a heads-up: The Times reports that Chastain is after your brain, too.