Could Boxing Brain Damage Have Triggered Tsarnaev?

This combination of undated photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. (AP)

This combination of undated photos shows Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, left, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. (AP)

Historical note: The name of the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, comes from the medieval Central Asian conqueror Tammerlane, also known as Timur the Terrible, who called himself “The Sword of Islam.”

And Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased marathon bombing suspect, fashioned himself into a modern version of a warrior — as a boxer. But in modern times, we’re also increasingly aware that repeated blows to the brain, in boxing or other athletic combat, can cause serious damage known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE — and that in some people, that brain damage has been linked to violence unsanctioned by sports.

Might such brain damage have helped turn Tamerlan Tsarnaev into a terrorist? Sunday’s Boston Globe featured a call from two leading experts on CTE — Boston University’s Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Robert Stern — for a special autopsy on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s brain to examine it for boxing damage. They also expressed “serious doubt” that such damage was to blame.

The early symptoms can include personality change, impulsivity, explosiveness, a short fuse, rage and aggression.

But as we all puzzle over what could have triggered the marathon attack, I pressed Dr. Stern, a professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine and co-founder of the university’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy: What do we know about the connection between sports-related brain damage and violence? Tamerlan Tsarnaev had incurred a charge of domestic violence; that reminded me of NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who was also accused of domestic violence before he committed suicide last year, and was later found to have CTE.

Dr. Robert Stern (Vernon Doucette/BU)

Dr. Robert Stern (Vernon Doucette/BU)

Dr. Stern: “In boxers, what we know from 80 years of case reports — and I say 80 years because the first article came out in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1928, and ever since there’s been a lot of focus on boxers and being “punchdrunk,” or dementia pugilistica, which is the same as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — what we glean from all of that, plus my own research at BU, is that the early symptoms of CTE can include personality change, impulsivity, explosiveness, a short fuse, rage and aggression.

So these things happen. They happen frequently, they’re a major part of CTE, this brain disease that doesn’t affect everyone who hits their heads over and over again, but when the disease is there, those are some of the early symptoms, especially in boxers. That is the connection.

Where it falls apart is when there is a well-thought-out, highly planned act where it’s not an impulsive, out-of-control, short-fuse rage.

But where it falls apart is when there is a well-thought-out, highly planned act where it’s not an impulsive, out-of-control, short-fuse rage. So that’s the big distinction. There are very disturbed people out there who are terrorists and who do awful things and who plan things way in advance and have training and all that — that’s not a symptom of CTE.”

My final push: But mightn’t CTE have created an emotional substrate — of anger — for involvement in planned terror?

You can go there if you want, Dr. Stern said. But “the type of behavior and changes we’re talking about are among the most complex and multi-faceted behaviors there can be in human existence. And there can’t be a single reason or cause for one individual’s behavior.”

Readers, reactions? Theories? Personally, I’d rather believe in brain damage than evil…

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  • Futo Buddy

    i am surprised i missed this article as this has been my theory all along. if he was not a muslim and did this a lot more would be in the news about brain damage

  • Jeani Yoho

    This is retarded! Quit the sympathy for the terrorist, quit trying to play down what happened.

  • Ben Amirault

    This article is very disappointing The author refuses to take no for an answer and completely ignores the facts. The experts repeatedly said CTE isn’t to blame, yet she keeps pressing and then concludes the piece implying that it is still a possibility. So much for being an objective journalist.

    • smscott

      I read this differently. They didn’t say it “isn’t to blame” only that they do have questions in light of the level of planning involved. They did not “repeatedly say it isn’t to blame” so I do wish people would stop twisting what they read to suit their own feelings and then accusing others who don’t agree of doing what they just did.

  • Elias

    Carey Goldberg – NEWS FLASH – reporting should not be about what you want to believe (though this must sound pretty radical for the 21st century where the line between opinion and news is now just a arrow pointing from opinion to news) if your going to sensationalize this tiny potential connection between boxing and terrorism at least take the word of your expert. After reading this article its clear the headline should have read “Brain Damage Probably Didn’t Trigger Tsarnaev” and I know this doesn’t sound that catchy but maybe that would clue you in on the fact that your grasping for straws.

  • Margaret Manzi

    Do other boxers turn malevolent after blows to the head? Absurd to even consider brain damage as an excuse.

    • smscott

      actually some DO that that is the whole point. We have seen other boxers, and football players, exhibit not only dementia but aggression and rage after repeated blows to the head. So while its not an “excuse” per se, it could be a factor and its not absurd to consider it as such.

    • Futo Buddy
  • Darrell Birkey

    The writer ignores the facts in this case. Tamberlin was no a professional boxer who fought long fights and had repeated blows directly to the head. He was a young amateur boxer who fought limited 3 round bouts and was required to wear protective head gear.
    All of the danger of brain injury is for professional fighters who wear no head protection and fight 12-15 round bouts and fight for years.

    • NRHS class of 1980

      Unfortunately, it would be hard to obtain all the facts about blows to Tsarnaev. While it is true amateur boxing requires head protection some Sparring, especially overseas doesn’t require it. “Home sparring”, like I did with my family, got my bell rung a few times. Soccer can involve concussions. Home accidents even simple bike falls can give head trauma. These could add up…or not. And a serious concussion followed by another within a year can cause measurable brain damage. Don’t have to box for many years.

    • Futo Buddy

      head gear causes more brain damage than not using it.

  • Enough with the excuses

    No boxing did not do this because there are millions of people who box across the world and very few are terrorists. Tamerlan was a scumbag from a scumbag family, who sucked off the teet of America (collecting welfare) while plotting to ruin innocent people’s lives…let’s stop looking for excuses and call a spade a spade here!

    • Isobel

      Curious to know what you are referring to with the word “welfare.” The elder Tsarnaev was an able-bodied young man of working age: the government doesn’t provide “welfare” to such people. Did he collect unemployment at some point–is that what you mean? Do you disapprove of unemployment payments?

    • Futo Buddy

      plenty of them do have brain damage though