Words by Alexandra Salandy

 This last September, when 27 year-old former NFL player  Aaron Hernandez was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), doctors were unaware of how severe his case was. What they knew was that he had committed suicide while serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. But their diagnosis is now being challenged.

Leading neuropathologist and head of the Boston University CTE Center Dr. Ann McKee recently released the results of  Hernandez’s autopsy. According to her findings, the former New England Patriot had stage 3 CTE . Since stage 4 is most severe, this would make Hernandez the worst case discovered in his age group.  Researchers usually see that stage in players 46 and older.

CTE is caused by continuous head trauma and is often found in NFL players.  What makes the disease most frightening is that it can only be diagnosed after death. What’s even more frightening is that NFL players are particularly susceptible to it.

“There is a concern that we’re seeing accelerated disease in young athletes.” stated Mckee, “Whether or not that’s because they’re playing more aggressively or if they’re starting at younger ages, we don’t know. But we are seeing ravages of this disease, in this specific example, of a young person.”

Dr. Mckee, who has spent over a decade in research on this disease, referred to Hernandez’s case as “one of the most significant contributions to our work.”  Her research also revealed that Hernandez case was not only extremely severe, but that he had a gene called Apolipoprotein E (ApoE). This gene is a major cholesterol carrier that supports lipid transport and injury repair in the brain. ApoE polymorphic alleles are the main genetic determinants and makes it more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Mckee’s research further showed that the damage to Hernandez’s brain took years to develop. Hernandez served as the tight end for the Patriots from 2010-2012. Yet that might have been where his CTE developed. The condition could have started way back in his collegiate or even high school career.

Immediately, some suggested that his murder stemmed from his CTE but she clarified that she could not “connect the dots” between his behavior and the lab results.