In a groundbreaking discovery, Australian scientists have successfully diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in a professional female athlete, marking the first such case in history. 

Typically, studies on the degenerative brain disease, which is associated with contact sports, focus on male athletes. However, this diagnosis was made post-mortem on the brain of Heather Anderson, a 28-year-old Australian footballer who tragically took her own life last year.

CTE has long been linked to dementia and an increased risk of mental illness, believed to be caused by repetitive concussions and head impacts. Only diagnosable after death, the condition has garnered attention, with a recent study by 13 academic institutions providing conclusive evidence of its connection to head trauma.

The research was conducted by a team from Oxford Brookes University and 12 other academic institutions, with additional analysis from the Concussion Legacy Foundation. One of the co-senior authors expressed surprise at the strong causal relationship between repetitive head impacts and CTE. 

Dr. Adam White, executive director of the Concussion Legacy Foundation UK, emphasized the need to address repetitive head impacts and CTE within the broader public health discourse on preventable disorders caused by childhood exposure in contact sports like football, rugby, and ice hockey.

While research into CTE has been on the rise in recent years, with over 300 cases identified in American football alone, studies focusing on female sports stars have been limited. Anderson’s family chose to donate her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB) to gain further insight into her untimely death. Throughout her career, Anderson, who played eight professional games in the top-tier Australian Football League Women’s (AFLW), suffered several injuries, including at least one concussion.

Professor Michael Buckland, a co-author of the study, revealed that Anderson’s brain exhibited three distinct lesions, affecting areas responsible for movement regulation, problem-solving, memory, language, and behaviour. He also noted that individuals with CTE often experience a range of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, irritability, impulsivity, and substance abuse, with suicidal thoughts and actions being common.

The findings resonated with Anderson’s family, who found a sense of understanding in the results. They expressed gratitude for the research and hope that it will encourage further studies on the impact of head injuries on women in sports.