Brandi Chastain, the retired women’s soccer star and 1999 World Cup hero, announced on Thursday that when she passes away, her brain will be donated to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF) to be studied at Boston University.
Over the last decade, Boston University has been at the forefront of research on concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease, believed to be caused by repetitive head trauma, that results in ailments such as depression, dementia, vertigo, and severe mood swings. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. Last fall, BU and the Department of Veteran Affairs found evidence of CTE in the brains of 87 of 91 former NFL players it studied.
No woman has ever been diagnosed with CTE, but that’s probably more indicative of research shortcomings than anything else — of the 307 brains currently in the university’s brain bank, only seven are female. That’s why Chastain’s pledge is so important.
“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,” she told the New York Times. “That was the impetus for saying yes. If we can learn something, we should. And I won’t need it.”
The need for more studies on women’s concussions was the topic du jour last weekend at the first annual International Summit On Female Concussion and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The summit, which ThinkProgress attended, featured over two dozens experts in the field talking about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of concussion in females, particularly in athletes, domestic abuse victims, and military members.
The overall takeaway was that in comparable sports, women suffer from concussions at a higher rate than men and take longer to recover. Despite that fact, women’s concussions receive far less attention and funding than men’s concussions. At the summit, Dr. Angela Colantonio, the Director of the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute at the University of Toronto, reported that one analysis of over 200 TBI studies found that only seven percent included sex-specific data.
It’s crucial to bridge that data gap because there are scientific differences between male and female brains, bodies, and hormone levels. As Dr. Mayumi Prins, the Associate Professor at the UCLA Department of Neurosurgery, said, not only is the male brain is larger, but the sexes display a variance in blood flow, glucose metabolism, and interconnectivity in their brains. Other experts pointed to estrogen levels and neck strength as factors that cause TBIs to differ between men and women.
Dr. Jessica Gill, a researcher at the National Institute of Health, reported that the sexes also have a difference in tau concentrations after a concussion. (The tau protein is one of the most indicative factors of brain trauma, particularly CTE.) Seven days into a TBI, Gill found that women have tau concentrations that are 30 percent higher than the mean concentration found in men — an indicator that their symptoms will be worse at 30 days. And Dr. Jeff Bazarian, the Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, found that women particularly have poorer post-TBI outcomes than males during childbearing years. In fact, his research indicates a mild TBI is worse for a woman during the last two weeks of her menstrual cycle, possibly due to the abrupt decrease in progesterone production which leads to withdrawal symptoms.
This research highlights that it’s down-right detrimental that there isn’t more information and discourse about women’s concussions. In fact, it’s believed that women report concussions later than men do specifically because of this lack of awareness — athletic trainers haven’t historically been trained to recognize they symptoms of concussions in women the same way they have with men.
“I never had an official diagnosis of a concussion in my career,” Chastain told USA Today, “but as you grow older, you sometimes say, gosh, am I losing my memory or did I used to forget when I went into a room what I went in there for? Could this be the start of something?”
At the summit, the CLF presented data showing a direct correlation between the number of brains donated over the past nine years and the increase in studies and media attention about brain injuries. Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and executive director of the CLF, said the foundation’s focus in 2016 is to get more female athletes to pledge their brains.
Chastain’s donation is a significant step when it comes to research on women’s concussions, but hopefully it’s only the beginning.