Brandi Chastain sometimes walks into a room, then forgets why she went there. She wonders: Is this normal for a 47-year-old mother with a young son and long days full of coaching, speaking engagements, and broadcasting commitments? Or is it something more?
Chastain, who gained iconic status with the US women’s soccer team, has heard professional athletes — primarily former NFL players — discuss how concussions contributed to their memory loss, then to depression and other symptoms of degenerative brain disease.
So when she occasionally becomes forgetful, she also asks herself, “Is this what they’re talking about? Am I going to be a victim in 10 years or 20 years of what they’re talking about?”
With those questions in mind, Chastain has pledged her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, with the official announcement coming Thursday morning. Chastain’s is the 780th brain donor pledge to the Waltham-based foundation, with 307 posthumous donations made so far. Women account for 20 percent of the total pledges and, to date, Chastain is the highest-profile female athlete to offer her brain for future analysis.
The foundation hopes Chastain’s pledge raises awareness about concussions in women and encourages others to consider donations. With more female brain donations, researchers can learn more about how gender differences affect concussion rates, recovery time, and long-term brain health.
Some studies have shown that female athletes suffer concussions more frequently than males in comparable sports and take longer to recover. In soccer, female high school and college players report about twice as many concussions as male players.
“I would love for them to be able to dissect what happened in my brain, kind of like a tree when you cut it in half,” said Chastain. “You look at the circles and you know its age and you know more about what happened from there. What is going on from 8 to 11 years old, or 11 to 14, or 15 to 20 or beyond?
“Then, maybe there could be more evaluation about a certain period in a young athlete’s life. Maybe we can be more aware of what happens or what not to allow to happen.”
Chastain remembers playing with two self-diagnosed concussions during her days at Santa Clara University. But she thinks she suffered more during her long career because she played when there wasn’t great awareness about concussions.
The brain pledge is a natural extension of Chastain’s pioneering accomplishments on the field. As a member of the women’s national team, she won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals and helped take soccer to another level in the US.
Chastain is also responsible for perhaps the most memorable moment in women’s soccer history: her bra-baring celebration after her World Cup-winning penalty kick in 1999.
“As much as I’d like to think my legacy in soccer is that I played on the national team and we won World Cups and Olympic medals, the overarching legacy of the group that I played with is that we left soccer in a better place than it was when we started,” said Chastain.
Chastain believes her brain donation also will leave soccer in a better place for future generations.
Female athletes with résumés as impressive as Chastain’s don’t come along often, and since she started playing at 7 and retired from professional soccer at 42, she will give the foundation a female brain with prolonged exposure to potential head trauma — from concussions, subconcussive hits, and head balls.
Chastain’s experience could offer new insights to researchers affiliated with the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, a collaboration among the Department of Veterans Affairs, Boston University School of Medicine, and the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The brain bank collects and examines brain and spinal-cord tissue postmortem, and is devoted to learning more about how trauma affects the nervous system.
The brain bank focuses a large portion of its resources on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes with a history of concussions and subconcussive hits. Symptoms of the disease, commonly known as CTE, include memory loss, impaired judgment, aggression, suicidal tendencies, and dementia. The symptoms typically don’t appear until years after the original trauma occurs, and CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously.
Out of the seven female brains donated to the Concussion Legacy Foundation and analyzed, zero have been diagnosed with CTE. But since CTE has been identified in male soccer players, Chris Nowinski, founding executive director of the foundation, said, “I don’t think there’s any question we’ll see it in women as well.”
While it’s been nearly 44 years since Title IX led to more athletic opportunities for girls and women, Nowinski said, “There are fewer women with enough exposure to brain trauma to develop CTE. We don’t have 75-year-old former professional female athletes.
“We don’t know what the future is going to look like. We don’t know what the prevalence of CTE is going to be. The women who may have developed CTE are now getting old enough that they may be showing symptoms.”
Chastain became familiar with the Concussion Legacy Foundation through her work with the Safer Soccer campaign. Launched by the foundation and the Santa Clara University Institute of Sports Law and Ethics in 2014, Safer Soccer aims to educate parents, coaches, and soccer organizations about why they should wait until players reach high school to introduce headers. Chastain and fellow former national team members Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, and Cindy Parlow Cone help lead the campaign’s efforts.
Parlow Cone, who scored numerous goals with headers and saw her career cut short by concussions, pledged her brain to the foundation in 2008.
Attempting to head the ball and, in the process, colliding with another player, hitting the ground, or mis-hitting the ball accounts annually for 30 percent of concussions in middle and high school girls soccer, according to researchers.
Chastain can’t begin to guess how many times she headed the ball. But she remembers multiple instances when head balls came from very high up and she didn’t hit them squarely and she felt lingering effects.
“It wasn’t something that I recollect doing a lot as a kid,” said Chastain. “But I do recall that I had no qualms about doing it when the ball was in the air. I didn’t shy away from it one time.”
Now, for the sake of future generations, she’s taking on sports-related brain trauma with the same fearlessness.
“At the end of the day, we want our kids to be safe,” said Chastain. “We want them to enjoy soccer. We want them to enjoy sports.
“We want to have more information. That’s what I believe Safer Soccer is after. And that’s why I believe the pledge that I’m making is important in the long run.”