Researchers urge brain autopsy of bombing suspect

Scientists wonder if Boston Marathon bombing Suspect No. 1, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, seen boxing in the 2009 Golden Gloves National Boxing Tournament, had any brain damage from his time in the ring. (AP)
Scientists wonder if Boston Marathon bombing Suspect No. 1, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, left, seen boxing in the 2009 Golden Gloves National Boxing Tournament, had any brain damage from his time in the ring. (AP) –AP

 Two pioneering researchers of brain disease among athletes in violent sports recommended Saturday that investigators conduct special autopsy tests on amateur boxer Tamerlan Tsarnaev to determine whether the Boston Marathon bombing suspect could have been affected by boxing-related brain damage.

 The researchers expressed serious doubt the disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — could have factored in the wave of violence that led to Tsarnaev’s death early Friday in a firefight with police.

 But they suggested investigators would be remiss if they did not autopsy Tsarnaev’s brain for signs of CTE. The disease can only be diagnosed through post-mortem forensic tests of the brain.


“I hope to God they do the special testing,’’ said Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine.

Both Cantu and Dr. Robert Stern, cofounders of the Center for the Study of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU, were personally touched by the tragedy. They have friends and relatives who remain hospitalized from injuries suffered in the Marathon bombings.

Both researchers said they considered CTE when they learned of Tsarnaev’s boxing background. Tsarnaev, 26, had fought most of his life after his father introduced him to the sport as a child. He won numerous regional titles in New England Golden Gloves competition and advanced to the national championships in 2009.

Athletes as young as 17 have been diagnosed with CTE. Many other young athletes have been diagnosed with the disease after they committed suicide or engaged in other aberrant behavior.

The most common effects of CTE among young patients involve emotional instability and lack of impulse control.

By many accounts, Tsarnaev underwent a significant personality change in recent years. Family members said he was charged with physically abusing his wife, and a gym owner said Tsarnaev stunned onlookers within the last two weeks when he acted out of character by behaving disrespectfully at the facility.


 Despite those circumstan-ces, the BU researchers said, the highly deliberate and premeditated nature of the bombing attacks did not fit the profile of a patient with CTE.

“Is it possible that some changes might have gone on in his overall functioning due to his boxing and potentially related brain disease? Yes,’’ said Stern, a BU professor of neurology and neurosurgery. “Anything is possible. But to then jump to the disease leading to well-planned behavior like this, I couldn’t go there.’’

Dozens of football and hockey players as well as wrestlers have been diagnosed with CTE, which was long described in medical literature as boxing-related “dementia pugilistica’’ until scientific breakthroughs this century.

Stern said it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether a perpetrator of such egregious and seemingly senseless violence as the Marathon bombings experienced brain abnormalities.

“We can’t think of their brains as being normal,’’ he said. “But there are too many people who do such bizarre and terrible acts that it’s unlikely it’s all due to one terrorist gene or disease.’’

Routine autopsies do not include the generally expensive testing for CTE. And even if evidence of CTE were discovered in Tsarnaev’s brain, it would not prove a link between the disease and his recent actions, the researchers said.

But the historic significance of the Marathon bombings and the devastation they wrought should compel investigators to conduct the tests, according to the researchers.

“Am I suggesting it because I think he has the disease? No,’’ Stern said. “But would it lead to a complete picture [of his brain]? Yes.’’


Cantu said, “If they don’t do it, something could be missed.’’

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