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Aaron Hernandez’s CTE Worst Seen by BU Experts in a Young Person

MED’s Ann McKee says convicted killer’s brain will advance research

  • Aaron Hernandez had most extreme CTE BU researchers have seen in young person
  • Convicted murderer’s brain invaluable to research given its pristine condition, his youth
  • Ann McKee, head of BU CTE Center, announces findings during annual CTE conference

Aaron Hernandez, a former New England Patriot and convicted murderer who died from suicide in jail in April, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to a degree never before seen by BU researchers in such a young person, a University expert in the brain disease said Thursday.

Hernandez, just 27 when he hanged himself with a bedsheet, was riddled with Stage 3 CTE, to a degree that “we’ve never seen…in our 468 brains, except for individuals very much older,” Ann McKee, director of BU’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, told a news conference at the Metcalf Trustee Center Thursday. “Individuals with similar gross findings…were at least 46 years old at the time of death.”

CTE, which has four stages, is a progressive illness found in athletes and others who have suffered repeated concussions and other brain trauma. It is associated with dementia, mood changes, and aggression.

“Especially in the frontal lobes, which are very important for decision-making, judgment, and cognition, we could see damage to the inner chambers of the brain,” McKee said as she screened slides showing sections of Hernandez’s brain. “This would be the first case we’ve ever seen of that kind of damage in such a young individual.”

She said that in addition to deposits of the protein tau, which is associated with CTE, other evidence of the disease ranged across Hernandez’s brain. That included dilated ventricles—the chambers storing spinal fluid, which indicate the brain had shrunk—and an atrophied fornix (nerves associated with memory), “all of these caused by repetitive brain trauma.”

Noting that Hernandez did not suffer from other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, McKee said that “in every place that we looked, it was classic CTE. This is substantial damage that undoubtedly took years to develop.”

Scientific figure showing images of CTE in Aaron Hernandez's brain compared to a normal 27 year old brain

Hernandez’s CTE-afflicted brain had an atrophied fornix (nerves associated with memory) compared to that of a normal person his age and enlarged ventricular cavities, involved in producing brain-cushioning fluid. Figure courtesy of McKee

McKee, a School of Medicine professor of neurology and pathology, had disclosed in September that Hernandez had suffered from CTE. Her center has done pioneering research on the illness through its bank of donated brains, including Hernandez’s.

She briefed reporters on details of her examination during BU’s second annual CTE Continuing Medical Education Conference.

Hernandez, once a promising tight end with the Pats, was convicted in 2015 of murdering Odin Lloyd, a friend of his. While in jail, he was accused of a 2012 double murder in Boston. Earlier this year, he was acquitted of those killings, but hung himself in his prison cell shortly after.

“This brain has been one of the most significant contributions to our work,” McKee said, because of Hernandez’s youth and the organ’s pristine condition when it was turned over by the medical examiner. “The integrity of the brain tissue is so well preserved that we’re advancing our understanding of the disease at the submicroscopic level. We’re able to do things in this particular brain that we aren’t always able to do given the condition of a brain when we receive it.”

Aaron Hernandez as a NFL player with the New England Patriots

Aaron Hernandez suited up for the Patriots in 2011, before his life spiraled down with a murder conviction. Photo by Jeffrey Beall

Helmets do not protect athletes from the jarring head movements associated with CTE, McKee told the conference. “It’s an intrinsic component of football,” the researcher said. “Every time you have a tackle or a collision, you’re going to have these rapid forces affecting the brain.…That’s one of the difficulties of keeping football safe.”

Hernandez’s CTE prompted the player’s estate to sue the National Football League and the Patriots, arguing that they knew repeated head trauma could cause disease and had failed to protect Hernandez. As well, more than 100 former National Hockey League players have sued the NHL, seeking medical benefits on the grounds that the league should have known about diseases like CTE.

McKee said that “while I’m not going to connect the dots with his behavior or difficulties during life…the frontal lobes—and his were very severely affected—are involved in problem-solving, judgment, impulse control, and social behavior. The amygdala, which was affected in Aaron Hernandez as well, is involved in emotional regulation, emotional behavior, fear, and anxiety.”

She also said that while Hernandez had a genetic marker that makes people vulnerable to brain disease, it wasn’t certain that it contributed to his condition.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Aaron Hernandez’s CTE Worst Seen by BU Experts in a Young Person

  • Heidi Maclean on 11.10.2017 at 9:20 am

    I have such mixed emotions about this article concerning Hernandez’s brain disease. Even more so considering the manner in which he died (hanging himself with a bed sheet…). I think to a large extent it raises a a lot questions about the society we live in …and the value we place on life… Are we conscious enough? Are we alert to the life within and that of each individual in our various communities?
    Hmm, this is very disheartening… (Of course not ignoring the fact that Hernandez was a convicted murderer…)

  • S on 11.11.2017 at 7:31 am

    Is there any way to quantify, how much of this was from his pre NFL football days (high school/college …) ? Would his alleged “gang” lifestyle and alleged drug use contributed to his severe brain injury?

  • anyonomous on 11.14.2017 at 10:01 am

    Although this article doesn’t directly state this, one might get the feeling that it is putting forth a possibility that CTE was a contributing cause of his violent actions and behavior. I personally will not buy into CTE as the cause of his violent behavior, which was not the result of quick reactions or judgments, but rather more cold and calculated, the way street gangstas operate. The guy was a thug, a gangster, who lived by a street code that ignores real law and order, but rather is built on a street life mentality. This article doesn’t contribute to the truths of this guys lifestyle or behavior in any way, but merely points to the fact that yes, he had symptoms of the disease, nothing else can be proven.

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