The late Australian footballer Heather Anderson diagnosed for the first time with a case of traumatic brain injury CTE in a female athlete | Health

Australian researchers have for the first time diagnosed a female athlete with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma, in a finding that will have major implications for women’s sport.

Australian footballer and Adelaide premiership player Heather Anderson died in November 2022 aged 28, with her unexpected death subject to an ongoing coronary inquest.

Anderson, who was also a medic in the Australian Defense Force, played rugby league and later Australian rules football during his contact sports career, which began at the age of five and progressed extended over 18 years.

Her mother insisted that she wear a helmet during games because of the risk of concussions.

“She hated seeing me get run over,” Anderson told news outlet Mamamia in 2017.

Anderson’s family donated her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank in hopes of better understanding why she died. The ASBB researchers’ findings, published in the medical journal Acta Neuropathologica on Tuesday, describe his brain examination and neuropathological findings that meet current diagnostic criteria for low-stage CTE.

A post by the authors of the paper, published by The Conversation, said: “She is the first female athlete diagnosed with CTE, but she won’t be the last.

“While Australian women have historically been excluded from sports most associated with repetitive brain injury, this is changing,” the authors wrote. “In 2022, there were almost one million women and girls playing some form of contact sport in Australia. As women’s participation in contact sports continues to grow, their risk of repetitive brain injury also increases.

Due to the circumstances surrounding Anderson’s death, her father wrote in a Facebook post at the time that it was suspected she had taken her own life. “The response to the news of Heather taking her own life showed us that she has friends, teammates and fellow soldiers across the country,” he wrote.

The study of his brain was led by Associate Professor Catherine Suter, ASBB’s Chief Scientist. In the research paper, she and her co-authors wrote: “While there are insufficient data to draw conclusions about an association between CTE and manner of death, deaths by suicide are not not uncommon in cohorts where CTE is sought at autopsy.”

The paper’s co-author, Dr. Michael Buckland, said there were “multiple CTE lesions as well as abnormalities almost everywhere I looked in his cortex.”

“It was indistinguishable from the dozens of male cases I’ve seen,” he said. “I want to thank the Anderson family for generously donating Heather’s brain and I hope other families will follow in their footsteps so we can advance science to help future athletes.”

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