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BU Researchers Explore Aaron Hernandez’s Brain for CTE

His brain scan revealed stage 3 CTE to a degree that surprised Boston University researchers.


Researchers from the Boston University (BU) studied Aaron Hernandez’s brain after he died by suicide in 2017 while serving prison for homicide.

A three-part documentary Netflix series is exploring how CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) may have affected the NFL star’s behavior.

The researchers found that the affliction that caused by repeated blows to the head might have triggered aggressive behavior and suicidal thought.

Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in April 2017. He was 27. His suicide was a bizarre one. He had sketched references to the Illuminati on his prison wall in blood and scribbled a Bible verse on his forehead. He also had other violent behaviors. A player of such enormous talent had placed a ligature around his neck and hanged himself in the prison cell.

Researcher Ann McKee said, “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.”

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The athlete’s brain was “riddled” with stage 3 CTE to a degree that surprised the researchers because they have never seen such changes in such a young person.

McKee said, “His brain was ‘riddled’ with stage 3 CTE to a degree that we’ve never seen…in our 468 brains, except for individuals very much older. Individuals with similar gross findings…were at least 46 years old at the time of death.”

“Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms,” according to Boston University.

“CTE has been known to affect boxers since the 1920’s (when it was initially termed punch drunk syndrome or dementia pugilistica)…The repeated brain trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the build-up of an abnormal protein called tau.”

“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,” explained McKee. “This would be the first case we’ve ever seen of that kind of damage in such a young individual.”

The researchers also found that Hernandez’s brain had shrunk.

McKee said, “Aaron’s brain showed deposits of the protein tau, which is associated with CTE, and other evidence of the disease, including dilated ventricles, which indicates the brain had shrunk, and an atrophied fornix, (nerves associated with memory.) This was caused by repetitive brain trauma.” She added, “In every place that we looked, it was classic CTE. This is substantial damage that undoubtedly took years to develop.”