Aaron Hernandez Suffered Most Severe Case of CTE Ever Seen
Former NFL player Aaron Hernandez who killed himself in his jail cell while serving a life sentence for murder had suffered the most severe case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy ever seen, scientists who examined his brain after his death said. According to news reports, Boston University’s CTE Center, which has studied the disease caused by repetitive brain trauma for more than a decade, called Hernandez’s brain “one of the most significant contributions to our work” because of the pristine condition of the brain and the rare opportunity to study how the disease affected the 27-year-old. Unfortunately, CTE can be diagnosed only after a person’s death. Doctors found Hernandez had Stage 3 CTE, which researchers had never seen in a brain younger than 46 years old.
Severe Damage to the Brain
Doctors said they had never encountered such extreme degradation in a young brain, pointing out areas of severe tissue damage and micro-bleeds likely caused by blows to the head. Hernandez’s brain scans reveal huge clumps of tau protein in Hernandez’s frontal lobes, and in the nerve cells around small blood vessels, a unique feature of CTE.
These proteins, also seen in individuals with dementia, disrupt the normal functioning of the brain, triggering aggression, impulsive behavior, memory loss and other cognitive changes. BU’s ongoing investigation into football-linked brain injury is studying hundreds of former players’ brains, including Aaron Hernandez, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters, all of whom had CTE and took their own lives.
Effects of CTE
Their tests showed Hernandez had early brain atrophy and large perforations in the septum pellucidum, a central membrane that is essential to control one’s behavior. His brain’s hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory, had shrunk. The fornix, which also contributes to memory function, had atrophied. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for problem-solving, judgment, impulse control and social behavior had been pockmarked with tau protein.
The part of the brain, which produces emotional regulation, behavior, fear and anxiety, had been severely affected. The temporal lobes, which process sights and sounds, also showed significant damage. Hernandez’s brain scans showed that he had a variant of a gene, which has been linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which is similar to CTE. However, CTE uniquely affects some of the nerve cells that Alzheimer’s does not. CTE is caused by repeated hits to the head. And over time, these impacts result in confusion, depression, dementia, aggression and suicidal thoughts.
This is yet another warning sign for parents who have children interested in playing football and a reminder that the NFL needs to do much more to protect its players. Today we know that concussions – especially repeated concussions – cause irreversible brain damage. Schools, colleges and sports leagues must do everything in their power to ensure the safety of these athletes.