Former pro wrestler Kevin Nash and former women’s soccer player Brandi Chastain both announced that they will donate their brains to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center after their deaths. There, the brains will be studied for signs of CTE.
What’s most significant about Nash’s and Chastain’s decisions is that neither played in the NFL. Boston University’s researchers have built a sizable catalogue of CTE-riddled brains that belonged to former football players, but there is still more to be learned from studying the brains of athletes, particularly women, who participated in other sports.
Both Nash and Chastain explained their decisions to donate by citing symptoms they believe to be the results of concussions. Nash told ESPN that he’s been knocked out in the ring before and woken up not knowing where he was, and that he’s been more emotional in recent years. Chastain told The New York Times that she believes she shook off a concussion “probably a half-dozen times” during her career, and sometimes experiences short-term memory loss.
And therein lies the biggest issue with Boston University’s self-selecting study: it only tells us that athletes who strongly suspected themselves to be suffering from CTE did in fact have the disease. Expanding the scope of the research is an important step, but we still aren’t any closer to understanding things like CTE’s rate of development, if some people are predisposed to it, or how prevalent it is in the various contact sports. All we really know is that CTE exists, is caused by repeated blows to the head, and that people who think they have it often do.
At some point, the research needs to take another step forward, either by studying the brains of athletes who haven’t experienced any of the symptoms associated with CTE, or by developing a way to test for the disease in living patients. The cataloguing of damaged brains will continue until then, and although that can help us understand the inherent risks that come from playing any kind of contact sport, it doesn’t yet offer much more than that.