clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why Brandi Chastain donating her brain to science is a big deal

Even if she doesn't have CTE, her contribution, and call for others to join her, will help the ongoing study.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Last week, former U.S. Women's National Team star Brandi Chastain, she of the iconic sports bra celebration after kicking the winning penalty to win the 1999 Women's World Cup, announced she would be donating her brain to science after her death. The reason? She wants to contribute to the ongoing study at the Concussion Legacy Foundation, determining the effect of brain trauma over the course of a lifetime.

Talk of concussions and athletes has been dominated by football in recent years, perhaps unsurprisingly. Football players not only contend with literal brain-rattling concussions, but also smaller mini-shocks to the head, sometimes dozens or more a game, for years. The extreme violence present in the sport means there's plenty of fodder to study, to see the outsized impact (no pun intended) football does to the brains of those who play.

Soccer is not a contact sport in the same way football is, of course, but it remains a contact sport. Talking to my mom over the weekend about the various ways soccer players can get concussions (taking a ball to the head at times, head-to-head collisions, elbow-to-head collisions, getting punched in the head by a goalkeeper) because of the news, Chastain's announcement is important in two ways. One, it publicizes the fact that concussions and mini-shock head injuries that could perhaps be caused by heading the ball is a present danger in soccer and something that warrants further study; and two, it also helps bring women into the main study.

The New York Times cites 307 athletes brains examined, and says no women's brains have been found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease that leads to poor quality of life, among other dire consequences, for those who suffer from it. But that story also notes that only seven of the 307 brains were female.

As a woman who has suffered multiple concussions in my life, I'm very intrigued about the ongoing study. I was athletic enough in my youth to like playing sports, and clumsy enough on a daily basis to hurt my head more than once. I doubt I'm in a worst-case scenario here, but it is something to think about as the study develops.

Chastain is not just adding her brain to help enlarge the sample size, a worthy goal in itself, but is clearly publicizing her quest and lobbying other women to donate their brains, too. She specifically lists several teammates from her playing days in the NYT article, but also makes an appeal for recently-retired Abby Wambach, the women's player who headed the ball as well and as often as anyone, and who often got her head stuck in and therefore hurt on risky plays, to donate her brain, too. I understand the reasoning -- Wambach would appear to be on the extreme end, so if she develops CTE, that would help put her style of play in context.

And that's why it is important for women overall. The only way the entire study will be truly useful for the public at large is if the sample size is as representative as possible. It makes sense that they're studying athletes' brains, but non-elite athletes need to be included, too, in order to determine if CTE is an "athlete's disease" or something anyone could develop based more or less on daily activity.

And if men's brains are overwhelmingly studied, it leaves out effectively half of the population. Sure, women don't play football often, but they are involved in soccer, hockey, boxing and other sports where concussions happen. People of all genders can get concussions even if not engaged in sporting activity -- believe me, the first time I actually saw stars when hitting a spot on my head where I had previously hit my head hard came when I hit a light fixture in the attic.

Maybe the distinction in hormones between men and women makes a difference in CTE development. Maybe it's just the speed and rate and frequency of hits to the head that makes the difference. And again, maybe lots of normal folks develop CTE at some point. Chastain is just one person, but what she's doing is making herself an example and a research subject, and that could help a lot of people in the long run. And the key is that a true cross-section of people need to be studied over time so we know what we're dealing with when we talk about brain injuries and the long-term consequences. Here's hoping more follow Chastain's example.

What do you think? Leave a comment below!