When researchers announced they had founds of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, they noted that he showed signs of severe damage to his brain. However, even they underestimated just how severe the situation was.
Speaking at a medical conference Thursday, researchers at Boston University revealed that Hernandez had the most severe case of CTE ever found in a person his age.
While they are unable to say for sure whether CTE directly contributed to Hernandez’s reckless and dangerous behavior that led to him serving a life sentence for murder, Dr. Ann McKee and colleagues say the level of CTE would certainly have affected his behavior, thinking, and actions.
“We can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior, but we can say collectively that individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behavior,” said McKee.
Hernandez was 27-years-old when he committed suicide in his jail cell. When his brain was evaluated in an autopsy, McKee and colleagues found that the young former athlete had stage 3 CTE, which had never been seen in a brain younger than 46-years-old.
The brain had lost significant tissue, membranes that were typically firm had become “thin and gelatinous”, and the team found large holes in parts of the brain. Important brain regions such as the hippocampus had also shrunk significantly.
Together, they were “very unusual findings in an individual of this age,” McKee said. “We’ve never seen this in our 468 brains, except in individuals some 20 years older.”
The findings led McKee, the head of Boston University’s CTE Center to call Hernandez’s brain “one of the most significant contributions to our work.”
Because Boston University’s CTE Center has received a relatively low number of brains from people Hernandez’s age, the researchers couldn’t say for sure whether Hernandez is a severe outlier or if his brain may be representative of other athletes his age with similar football careers. Nonetheless, the findings were alarming to McKee and her team.
“In this age group, he’s clearly at the severe end of the spectrum,” McKee said. “There is a concern that we’re seeing accelerated disease in young athletes. Whether or not that’s because they’re playing more aggressively or if they’re starting at younger ages, we don’t know. But we are seeing ravages of this disease, in this specific example, of a young person.”
McKee did note that Hernandez was born with a genetic marker associated with increased risk for brain disease which could have contributed to the particularly severe damage found in his brain.
“We know that that’s a risk factor for neurogenerative disease,” McKee said. “Whether or not that contributed in this case is speculative. It may explain some of his susceptibility to this disease.”