Starting Friday, the world’s eyes will be on Pyeongchang, South Korea as we watch athletes compete for the gold medal. But, in the days leading up to the opening ceremonies, some athletes are making big decisions that could have implications on athletics in the future.
U.S. Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor joined with two other female Olympians to announce they would be donating their brains for concussion research. This makes the group some of the most notable female athletes in the world to donate their brains.
“The long-term consequences of brain trauma are a major concern in sports, and I’m doing this for every athlete that will follow in my footsteps,” Meyers Taylor, 33, said in a statement released by the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF). The CLF is an organization that advocates for the study and treatment of brain trauma.
Alongside Taylor, four-time U.S. Olympic ice hockey player Angela Ruggiero and Hayley Wickenheiser, a five-time Olympic medalist with the Canadian women’s ice hockey team, both announced they would be donating their brains for research after their death.
Ruggiero, who is also chair of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission and CEO of the Sports Innovation Lab, said she was motivated to take action after seeing teammates’ careers prematurely ended by concussions.
“I saw teammates around me that literally lost their career or had to retire early, prematurely, because they had major, major concussions,” said Ruggiero. “I thought I could potentially be a good role model for other athletes.”
While a significant number of male athletes – primarily from football – have pledged to donate their brains for research after their deaths, brain banks have struggled to find donations from females. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who works with the CLF to operate the largest brain bank in the world, recently joined an initiative aimed at raising awareness and encouraging donations.
Dr. Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the CLF, said the decision could lead to potential future breakthroughs, as well as helping raise awareness.
“This has always been an important topic for female athletes but because football has received the most coverage, females don’t get enough attention,” Nowinski told ABC News. “A female athlete has yet to be diagnosed with CTE but that’s primarily due to [not having] many female brains donated.”
The scientists at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank have autopsied and evaluated brains from hundreds of athletes and military veterans, but fewer than 10 female brains are currently in the brain bank.
“We can’t even begin to explore sex differences until we get the brains of females with CTE,” said Nowinski. “We haven’t had that first case of CTE in a prominent female athlete that opens up everybody’s eyes.”
“We hope these pledges today help change that concept and make it also normal to donate female brains,” he said. “There is no question female athletes are susceptible and this is an important area to investigate.”