Researchers said former Australian rules football player Heather Anderson has been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the first known case of the degenerative brain disease in a professional female athlete.
Anderson played seven games for Adelaide in the Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW) competition in 2017 and retired later that year. She took her own life last November. She was 28.
Anderson’s family donated her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB), and the findings were published Tuesday in the Springer Medical Journal.
Researchers said the neuropathological findings fulfill current diagnostic criteria for low-stage CTE.
“She is the first female athlete diagnosed with CTE, but she will not be the last,” the authors of the paper wrote.
Anderson, who was a medic in the Australian defense force, also played rugby league during her contact sports career.
Anderson’s father, Brian, said the diagnosis was “a surprise, but not a surprise”.
“Now that this report has been published, I’m sort of trying to think about how it might play out for female sportspeople everywhere,” Brian Anderson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Suicide, it’s a tough one, it’s a tough way to see your child die, it’s tough to see your child die anyway.
“But suicide causes you to re-examine everything, to look at every interaction.”
ASBB director Michael Buckland, who co-authored the paper, said 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,” he added.
Buckland told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the diagnosis was a significant step in understanding the effects that years of playing contact sports has on women’s brains.
“It’s a real red flag that now women are participating [in contact sports] just as men are, that we are going to start seeing more and more CTE cases in women,” Buckland said.
The issue of repetitive head trauma has come to the fore in numerous sports in recent years, including rugby league and union, soccer and the NFL and NHL in the United States.
Information from Reuters and The AAP was used in this report.
Heather Anderson diagnosed with CTE in 1st case for female athlete