Aaron Hernandez committed suicide while in jail last April, but his brain had begun to deteriorate significantly before the incident, new published results show.
The former NFL player suffered from severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that has been linked to head trauma.
According to a statement from Boston University's CTE Center, the 27-year-old "had early brain atrophy and large perforations in the septum pellucidum, a central membrane." This means his brain was shrinking over time and there were holes in the membrane that separates the two cerebral hemispheres.
A graphic of Hernandez's brain shows classic signs of CTE, researchers explained.
"CTE is associated with aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, depression, memory loss and other cognitive changes," the University said. Researchers in the CTE center determined that Hernandez's Stage 3 disease was unusually severe for a person his age.
The advanced nature of his condition "is normally found in the median age of a 67-year-old man," Hernandez family attorney Jose Baez told PEOPLE.
Now, the deceased football player's family is suing the NFL and the New England Patriots on behalf of Hernandez's 4-year-old daughter, Avielle, for their implied connection to his death. "It's a loss of consortium claim," Baez said. "She's growing up without a father because of the negligence of the NFL."
The family's claim is that Hernandez's wild behavior was partially the result of his CTE, which was potentially caused by his career on the football field.
He hanged himself with a bed sheet in his jail cell five days after being acquitted of double murder charges in the deaths of two men at a Boston club in 2012. Hernandez was still serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole for the murder of Odin Lloyd, his fiancee's sister's boyfriend, in 2013.
The family maintains his innocence in connection with these murders, and Hernandez's death voided the conviction for Lloyd's murder because his direct appeal had not been completed before he took his own life.
"While we still maintain that he was innocent [of the murders], the CTE can explain a lot of his behavior," Baez said. "The impulsiveness can be a symptom of CTE. We think that the CTE explains a lot of things that Aaron did, including his supposed suicide."
This claim comes after the family learned of Hernandez's disease, which can only be diagnosed in postmortem examination.
In July, Boston University researchers published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that claims CTE was detected in 99 percent of brains obtained from deceased NFL players. Several other professional football players, including Junior Seau, were diagnosed with the disease after committing suicide.
Photo Credit: Getty / Boston Globe / Getty / Jared Wickerham0comments
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