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Does soccer heading put women at an increased​ risk than men for developing CTE?

By: Jacki Meinhardt, FNP

Scientific evidence is mounting that repetitive hits to the head — not just concussions — can lead to a devastating neurodegenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). But so far, all the current data about CTE come from studying groups of males (1) . To bridge the gaping hole in understanding how CTE affects women, researchers at the Boston University CTE Center are launching a first-of-its-kind study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Concussion Legacy Foundation, that will analyze the brains of female former professional soccer players (2).

The study, called the Soccer, Head Impacts and Neurological Effects Study (SHINE) is recruiting a total of 20 former soccer players and will create the first all-female study cohort dedicated to understanding CTE. Former US soccer stars Brandi Chastain and Michelle Akers have recently made waves in the media by ging public with their decision to take part in the study and to donate their brains to the CTE Center brain bank after their death.

The study will include 20 women over the age of 40 who have played at least five years of organized soccer and at least one year on the U.S. national team, the U.S. Olympic team, or at the professional level. Participants will spend two days at Boston University's School of Medicine, undergoing a series of tests including cognitive and neurological assessments, MRI scans, blood draws, and an optional spinal tap. The results will be compared with those for similar-age women who have not endured repetitive head impacts, as well as other groups such as football players and patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

Recent research of male and female soccer players, at the youth and collegiate levels, has shown that heading can result in structural changes to the brain and impaired cognitive function, potential early indicators of CTE (3). Still, little is known about just how at-risk soccer players may be. There is still no definitive way to diagnose CTE in a living person, although studies like SHINE aim to help researchers identify the signs.

The goal: to understand the long-term consequence of hitting your head over and over in competitive women’s soccer.

1. Mackay, DF, Russell, ER, Stewart, K, MacLean, JA, Pell, JP & Stewart, W. (2019). Neurodegenerative Disease Mortality among Former Professional Soccer Players.The New England journal of medicine. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1908483

2. DIAGNOSE CTE Research Project (n.d.).

3. Stern RA, Daneshvar DH, Baugh CM, Seichepine DR, Montenigro PH, Riley DO, Fritts NG, Stamm JM, Robbins CA, McHale L, Simkin I, Stein TD, Alvarez VE, Goldstein LE, Budson AE, Kowall NW, Nowinski CJ, Cantu RC, McKee AC. (2013). Clinical presentation of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Neurology.

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