John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
The pioneering researcher who discovered that Aaron Hernandez was afflicted with advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy said Thursday that she cannot solve one of the great mysteries in American sports: why the Patriots phenom who seemed to have it all, including a $40 million contract, would murder a friend over a perceived slight and hang himself five days after a jury cleared him of killing two strangers who may have angered him at a nightclub.
But Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who directs the Boston University CTE Center, said Hernandez’s brain disease — the most severe the BU team has seen in an athlete so young — is known to manifest in harmful ways.
“We can’t take the pathology and explain the behavior, but we can say collectively that individuals with CTE of this severity have difficulty with impulse control, decision-making, aggression, often emotional volatility, and rage behavior,” McKee said.
McKee said the BU team has autopsied 468 brains, and no one younger than 46 who was diagnosed with CTE had a brain as damaged as Hernandez, who was 27 at the time of his death in April.
McKee displayed a series of images and pointed to severe damage to Hernandez’s brain that she said was caused by repetitive head trauma. The damage included substantial atrophy, or loss of brain tissue.
“In every place we looked, it was classic CTE,” she said.
She said she received Hernandez’s brain in very good condition, which presented a rare opportunity to study the disease in a person so young. McKee said Hernandez was born with a genetic marker that is associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and possibly CTE.
“He may have had some susceptibility to developing a more aggressive type [of CTE],” McKee said.
McKee’s diagnosis was made public last month by Jose Baez, a lawyer for Hernandez’s estate, when he announced plans to sue the NFL for allegedly failing to protect the former player from the potential consequences of head injuries.
BU issued a statement at the time confirming that Hernandez had Stage 3 (of 4) CTE and released images of a brain exam that showed classic telltale signs of the disease.
But McKee had not spoken publicly or fielded questions about her findings until Thursday as part of her presentation during an academic conference on CTE being held at BU.
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