Female athlete diagnosed with CTE brain disease in landmark case

Heather Anderson, an Australian Rules footballer, was posthumously diagnosed with the degenerative disease.

Australian researchers have diagnosed what is believed to be the first professional woman athlete with the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in what has been described as a landmark diagnosis that should be a “wake-up call” for women’s sport.

Scientists at the Sydney-based Australian Sports Brain Bank research centre said on Monday that they had identified low-stage CTE in the brain of former professional Australian Rules footballer Heather Anderson, who died in November 2022 at the age of 28.

The cause of death is subject to a coronial investigation but is suspected to be suicide.

CTE is caused by repeated knocks that can lead to the degeneration of brain tissue and an unusual buildup of a protein called tau. This can cause symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, impaired judgement and suicidal behaviour.

The brain disease is most prevalent in high-contact sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA), boxing, rugby, American football and Australian rules football. A recent study conducted in the United States that looked at 631 former American footballers’ brains found that 71 percent had suffered from CTE.

Stevie-Lee Thompson of the Adelaide Crows is seen getting emotional during a moment’s silence for former teammate Anderson [File: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images]

‘Wake-up call’

Only a small number of women globally have been diagnosed with CTE, which is caused by repeated impact to the head, and ASBB director Michael Buckland said none of them had been athletes.

Chris Nowinski, chief executive of the US-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, said Anderson’s “landmark” diagnosis should be a “wake-up 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,” he said.

Buckland said he was in no doubt Anderson had suffered from the debilitating disease.

“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, a former army medic, played contact sports from the age of five.

She retired in 2017 after winning a premiership with the Adelaide Crows in the top-flight women’s Australian Football League competition.

Her injury-plagued sports career included at least one confirmed concussion, prompting her to play with a protective helmet.

Nowinski said research shows women have an equal or greater susceptibility to concussion in contact sports, but it is still unclear if they are more at risk of developing CTE.

Researchers anticipate more female athletes will be diagnosed with CTE as their participation in contact sport grows.

Source: Thanks AlJazeera.com