Update on Aaron Hernandez: Brain Injuries Led to Tragedy

BU researchers find aggression, depression, and suicide in football players.

Posted Sep 21, 2017

Public Domain 2006
Source: Public Domain 2006

The tragic choices of the former New England Patriots tight end, the late Aaron Hernandez, appear to have been related to a brain condition identified today by Boston University researchers. It was found that Hernandez suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Stage 3 out of 4; that is, a brain condition associated with repeated blows to the head. Such injuries often result in aggressive behavior, depression, dementia, and suicide. Hernandez went from All-American in college to the National Football League in 2010. By 2013, he was found guilty of murder and his death in prison was ruled a suicide on April 20, 2017. In April 2017, I wrote about the dangers on repetitive head injuries in football players: Aaron Hernandez: Tragic Choices or Brain Trauma? 

At the time, his attorney questioned the ruling, and his family asked that his brain be sent to a group at Boston University that studies the brains of football players—many of whom have made bad decisions, suffered from dementia, and committed suicide.

At that time I asked, “Could repetitive head injuries have played a role in the behavior of Aaron Hernandez, who was cleared of a double murder on April 15?”

Boston University Statement and Interview

A statement issued today about Aaron Hernandez via The Boston University CTE Center website says, in part: 

“A neuropathological examination of Aaron Hernandez’s brain was conducted by Dr. Ann McKee, Professor of Pathology and Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine, Director of BU’s CTE Center and Chief of Neuropathology at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank.

“Based on characteristic neuropathological findings, Dr. McKee concluded that Mr. Hernandez had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Stage 3 out of 4, (Stage 4 being the most severe). This diagnosis was confirmed by a second VABHS neuropathologist. In addition, Mr. Hernandez had early brain atrophy and large perforations in the septum pellucidum, a central membrane.”

Ann McKee, M.D., and her team have pointed out that “changes in the brain can begin months, years, or even decades after the last brain trauma or end of active athletic involvement.”

Dr. McKee explained to me during an earlier interview regarding teens and football:

“In autopsies of some teens who played high-school football, we found early changes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in the brain—similar to the more advanced stages found in older players.”

The center’s autopsies show such changes in the brain as tau protein deposits and neurofibrillary tangles consistent with brain injuries and brain degeneration that may include: memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, and dementia.

The NFL and Concussion Lawsuit

The National Football League was sued by thousands of former players in a class-action concussion lawsuit, which the NFL settled regarding brain injuries.

In a review article by E.J. Lehman on the "Epidemiology of neurodegeneration in American-style professional football players" in 2013, Alzheimers Research Therapy, it was pointed out that:

"Although the results of the studies reviewed do not establish a cause effect relationship between football-related head injury and neurodegenerative disorders, a growing body of research supports the hypothesis that professional football players are at an increased risk of neurodegeneration."

In a study published in Neurology that included 3,439 former NFL players with an average age of 57, researchers determined that professional football players were three times more likely to die as a result of diseases that damage brain cells than the general population.

The case of Hernandez is tragic for him, his family, and the family of his victim. For the family of Hernandez, a diagnosis of a brain injury due to playing football might come as a relief and provide greater insight into his apparent suicide. His family is filing a lawsuit against the Patriots and the NFL.

Today is a sad reminder of the potential danger to all professional football players, as well as those in college and high school. The sport is dangerous, even for young athletes: Chilling News About Football and Teen Concussions

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Everett J. Lehman, MS,  et al. "Epidemiology of neurodegeneration in American-style professional football players." Alzheimers Res Ther. 2013; 5(4): 34. Published online 2013 Jul 22.

Everett J. Lehman, MS, et al. "Neurodegenerative causes of death among retired National Football League players." Neurology 2012, Published online before print 2012 Sept 5.