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Minority of One blog

Brain damage and the Boston bombing

Steve Chapman

5:01 PM CDT, April 22, 2013

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When it came out that suspected Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a former Golden Gloves boxer, I wondered if there might be a connection. It's not that boxers are necessarily violent people outside the ring, but boxers are subject to brain damage from repeated hard blows to the head. And brain damage can have unpredictable effects.

Football players have been known to undergo frightening changes in personality and behavior as a result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Maybe it was religion that led the elder brother astray. Or maybe it was something less susceptible to his control.

So it comes as good news that two eminent brain scientists, Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Robert Stern of Boston University School of Medicine, are urging that his autopsy include an examination of his brain for evidence of CTE. "Is it possible that some changes might have gone on in his overall functioning due to his boxing and potentially related brain disease?" asked Stern. "Yes."  Reports The Boston Globe, "The most common effects of CTE among young patients involve emotional instability and lack of impulse control."

Of course many non-boxers exhibit those traits. The two doctors said they doubt the condition could explain the bombing. But they also think it's important to learn what CTE testing could reveal. "If they don't do it, something could be missed," said Cantu.

This information may be of little consequence for the bombing investigation. But it could make a big difference in how we weigh the risks of violent sports.