TELANDER: Studying CTE as a bomb component
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com May 18, 2013 1:04AM
Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev (left) was a boxer from childhood who liked to fight unprotected. | Glenn DePriest~Getty Images
Updated: June 20, 2013 6:43AM
What if terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev was brain-damaged?
What if the elder of the two alleged Boston Marathon bombers, who was killed three days after the April 15 attack, incurred brain trauma during his amateur boxing career and suffered the disabling effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy?
Would that make any difference?
Would it help in any way to better understand the alleged killer and the tragedy he and his sibling supposedly caused?
And would it tell us anything we don’t already know about the dangers of repetitive head blows from sports like boxing, football, hockey, soccer, etc.?
CTE is the degenerative condition that was present in former NFL player Dave Duerson’s brain when he killed himself in 2011 with a gunshot wound to the chest.
It was present in the brains of tragically deceased former NFL players Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, Mike Webster, Andre Waters and numerous other big hitters who had begun acting erratically and whose mental capacity and emotional stability changed dramatically after they retired from sport.
Testing for CTE can only be done, for now, on the brains of cadavers. Much of the early analytic work in the sports field on this degenerative condition has been performed by Dr. Ann McKee, a researcher and co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University. She sliced and analyzed Duerson’s brain, former hockey tough guy Bob Probert’s, Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg’s, hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard’s, on and on.
Indeed, 34 of the 35 former football players’ brains she examined showed signs of CTE.
Should McKee have been given a chance to look at Tsarnaev’s brain?
‘‘I hope to God they do the special testing,’’ Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the co-founders of the BU brain research center, told the Boston Globe the day after Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police.
The other co-founder, Dr. Robert Stern, a clinical professor of neurosurgery whose specialty is Alzheimer’s research, was in agreement. If the detailed cellular work were to be done, Dr. McKee would be perfect for it.
‘‘It makes sense,’’ he told me in a phone interview. ‘‘Someone should look at the brain.’’
Now all of this is very touchy.
Tsarnaev is not a sympathetic character. He is not a martyr. Not a damaged hero. Nor are the FBI and Homeland Security anything like the NFL and Boston University.
But it’s possible the concussion findings that have scared so many parents of children playing violent sports also could shed light in other directions — say, toward irrational crime and its cause and prevention.
Tsarnaev, 26 when he died, had boxed for much of his life, starting as a child back in Chechnya. He won some amateur titles in New England and advanced as far as the finals in the Golden Gloves tournament in 2009 in the 201-pound class. His style has been described as ‘‘European’’ — that is, upright and technically efficient.
He boxed in Boston, often traveling the city alone, without headgear, protective cup or mouthpiece, looking for sparring partners in gyms. When asked by one trainer why he didn’t bring the mandatory gear with him, he said that was how he liked to fight.
People who knew him said he changed dramatically around 2010. He became radicalized in many ways, including in his Muslim religion. He caused a disturbance in a mosque. He punched people outside the ring. He was arrested on a domestic violence charge.
Changes like that in personality are a hallmark of CTE progression. Duerson, Seau and other NFL players who died young also had issues with violence toward their wives or girlfriends.
Could it be that Tsarnaev’s boxing head trauma created at least the flashpoint for his viciously antisocial act?
Maybe, says Stern. But it’s a long, long reach.
‘‘People can say, ‘Gee, he boxed — couldn’t that be the answer?’ ’’ he says. ‘‘We know that anybody who boxes is susceptible to becoming what we used to call ‘punch drunk,’ or having dementia pugilistica, which creates changes in behavior, impulse control, unexpected rage, cognitive problems, depression, mood changes.
‘‘But do I think his boxing career led to CTE, which led to his egregious act? No. The problem is his behavior was very well-planned, it was a complex set of acts, not an impulsive act. Remember, there are millions of people who do crazy things. And there are cultural and psychological changes that occur that we can’t understand.’’
But could the CTE, if it existed in Tsarnaev’s brain, have been one of many catalysts, combined with all the outside forces, that helped create a mad bomber?
‘‘Yes,’’ says Stern. ‘‘That’s why his brain should be examined.’’
He finishes with this: ‘‘They’re spending millions and millions of dollars on the crime scene — why not a crime-scene investigation, if you will, of the brain?’’
But we’ll likely never know the answer.
Tsarnaev was buried last week in a cemetery outside Richmond, Va.