Researchers in Australia believe they have identified the first professional female athlete with the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Scientists at the Australian Sports Brain Bank research center in Sydney announced on Monday that they had discovered low-stage CTE in the brain of Heather Anderson, a former professional Australian Rules footballer who died eight months ago at the age of 28.
Only a few women worldwide have been diagnosed with CTE, which is caused by repeated head contact, and ASBB director Michael Buckland stated that none of them were athletes.
Chris Nowinski, chief executive of the US-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, said Anderson’s “landmark” diagnosis should be a “wakeup call for women’s sports”.
“We can prevent CTE by preventing repeated impacts to the head, and we must begin a dialogue with leaders in women’s sports today so we can save future generations of female athletes from suffering.”
Buckland said he was in no doubt Anderson had suffered from the debilitating disease, which has been found in numerous male athletes involved in contact sport.
“There were multiple CTE lesions as well as abnormalities nearly everywhere I looked in her cortex. It was indistinguishable from the dozens of male cases I’ve seen,” Buckland said.
“I want to thank the Anderson family for generously donating Heather’s brain and hope more families follow in their footsteps so we can advance the science to help future athletes.”
Anderson, 28, a former army medic whose cause of death is subject to a coronial investigation but is suspected to be suicide, played contact sport from the age of five.
She retired in 2017 after winning the top-flight women’s Australian Football League championship with the Adelaide Crows.
Her injury-plagued sporting career featured at least one verified concussion, prompting her to wear a protective helmet while playing.
According to Nowinski, evidence reveals that women are equally or more susceptible to concussion in contact sports, although it is unknown whether they are more likely to acquire CTE.
Researchers predict that as more female athletes participate in contact sports, they will be diagnosed with CTE.