Monday, December 04, 2017

Brief Guide to the CTE Brains in the News. Part 1: Aaron Hernandez

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the neurodegenerative disease of the moment, made famous by the violent and untimely deaths of many retired professional athletes. Repeated blows to the head sustained in contact sports such as boxing and American football can result in abnormal accumulations of tau protein (usually many years later). The autopsied brains from two of these individuals are shown below.



Left: courtesy of Dr. Ann McKee in NYT.  Right: courtesy of Dr. Bennett Omalu in CNN. These are coronal sections1 from the autopsied brains of: (L) Aaron Hernandez, aged 27; and (R) Fred O'Neill, aged 63.


Both men played professional football in the NFL. Both came upon some troubled times after leaving the game. And although the CTE pathology in their brains has been attributed directly to football — repeated concussive and sub-concussive events — other potential factors have been mostly ignored. Below I'll discuss these events and phenomena, and whether they could have contributed to the condition of the post-mortem brains.


Aaron Hernandez


Illustration by Sean McCabe for Rolling Stone


Talented ex-NFL football star, PCP addict, convicted murderer, and suicide by hanging. The Rolling Stone ran two riveting articles that detailed the life (and death) of Mr. Hernandez. Despite a difficult upbringing surrounded by violence and tragedy, he was a serious and stellar athlete at Bristol High School. The tragic death of his father from a medical accident led Aaron to hang out with a less savory crowd. He fortunately ended up at the University of Florida for college football. There he failed several drug tests, but the administration mostly looked the other way. He was on a national championship team, named an all-American, and involved in a shooting where he was not charged.

Most NFL teams took a pass because of his use of recreational drugs and reputation as a hot-head:
After seeing his pre-draft psychological report, where he received the lowest possible score, one out of 10, in the category of “social maturity” and which also noted that he enjoyed “living on the edge of acceptable behavior,” a handful of teams pulled him off their boards, and 25 others let him sink like a stone on draft day.

But he ended up signing with the New England Patriots in a $40 million deal. He smoked pot constantly and avoided hanging out with the other players. “Instead of teammates, Hernandez built a cohort of thugs, bringing stone-cold gangsters over to the house to play pool, smoke chronic and carouse.” Things spiraled downwards, in terms of thug life, use of PCP (angel dust), and ultimately the murder of a friend that ended in a life sentence without parole.

He was also tried and acquitted of a separate double homicide, but his days were numbered. Two days later he hanged himself with a bedsheet in his jail cell. He was rumored to have smoked K2 (nasty synthetic cannabis) just before his death, but this was ultimately unsubstantiated.

These complicating factors lengthy history of drug abuse, death by asphyxiation must have had some effect on his brain, I mused in another post.




Meanwhile, the New York Times had a splashy piece about how the pristine brain of Aaron Hernandez presented an opportunity to study a case of “pure” CTE:
What made the brain extraordinary, for the purpose of science, was not just the extent of the damage, but its singular cause. Most brains with that kind of damage have sustained a lifetime of other problems, too, from strokes to other diseases, like Alzheimer’s. Their samples are muddled, and not everything found can be connected to one particular disease.

This was a startling statement, as I said in my secondary blog:
I’ve been struggling to write a post that highlights the misleading nature of this claim. How much of that was [the writer's] own hyperbole? Or was he merely paraphrasing the famous neuropathologists who presented their results to the media, not to peer reviewers? Is it my job to find autopsied brains from PCP abusers and suicides by hanging? Searching for the latter, by the way, will turn up some very unsavory material in forensic journals and elsewhere. At any rate, I think much of this literature glosses over any complicating elements, and neglects to mention all of the cognitively intact former football players whose brains haven’t been autopsied.

In the next post, I'll discuss the case of Fred O'Neill.


Footnote

1 Illustration of the coronal plane of section.





Further Reading  
I've written about CTE a lot, you can read more below.

FDA says no to marketing FDDNP for CTE

Is CTE Detectable in Living NFL Players?

The Ethics of Public Diagnosis Using an Unvalidated Method

The Truth About Cognitive Impairment in Retired NFL Players

Lou Gehrig Probably Died of Lou Gehrig's Disease

Blast Wave Injury and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy: What's the Connection?

Little Evidence for a Direct Link between PTSD and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy




New York Times: A neuropathologist and her associate examined slices of the brain of a 27-year-old man. Credit: Boston University.

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker