Brain and Behavior: B.U. scientist says Aaron Hernandez had CTE

Westborough, MA November 18, 2017 The NFL has some explaining to do. Why are former athletes killing themselves and in some cases other people? As students studying the brain it was something special when you could make a correlation between an identified brain lesion and the behavior you are seeing.  I was in China in early November 2017 at a conference on RNA targeted therapy for cancer.  As the non-scientist in the group I was referred to as the clinician who saw the phenotype rather than the genotype – referring to the innumerable genetic underpinnings of cellular biology and changing science of modified nucleotides.  I understood this to have some meaningful interest to the faculty that consisted of 3 prior Nobel laureates and leading scientists in RNA targeted therapy.  So after sitting through hours of presentations I realize the importance of not making a rush to judgment about the cause of some predicted outcome. As a neuropsychologist we are asked to make assumptions about brain integrity after CNS infarcts and make educated predictions about the functional implication of focal lesions in brain.
Recently the scientists at Boston University announced the results of the post-mortem analysis of the brain of Aaron Hernandez, former N.E. Patriots receiver and convicted murderer.  Hernandez had his conviction expunged after he died while his case was on appeal. The 27-year old brain was highly suggestive of having the tell tale signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE thought to be the result of repeated concussions and now realized as the result of hundreds – perhaps thousands of sub-concussive blows to the head that accumulate over time.  Hernandez’s brain was the youngest of the donated brains to be identified with advanced CTE. Hernandez played football for 17 years starting when he was a young boy. The question remains did the brain damage that was identified in the post-mortem analysis cause behavior change in Hernandez and could the murder of Odin Lloyd be attributed to the build up of dangerous tau protein in his brain?
“While no one can prove a causal link between Hernandez’s brain damage and his actions, there is little dispute that he displayed CTE symptoms associated with behavioral problems, such as aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, and suicide.”
Boston Globe Bob Hohler November 9, 2017
By history Aaron Hernandez was an angry, impulsive and violent teenager that his mother reported began when his father died suddenly. Coupled with this was a biological proclivity toward degenerative brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease and CTE.  Both are diagnosed only after the death of the victim. We know that brain-behavior relationships exist from research in stroke and traumatic brain injury where focal injuries result in specific and expected changes in behavior.  These often result from a disconnection between functional centers of the brain including limbic structures that link centers for emotional regulation and the frontal system that exerts inhibitory control over those emotions. The athlete’s who have donated their brain’s upon their death have almost universally exhibited changes in behavior including poor impulse control, depression, and anger.
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Biofeedback: Teaching the body to return to a proper homeostasis

WESTBOROUGH, MA  November 8, 2017  There are several types of biofeedback that are useful when recovering from a concussion.  The first may help with the stress response that sometimes goes into overdrive after TBI or concussion. This involves becoming familiar with the fight-flight mechanism and its useful purpose as an early warning system.  Throughout time the autonomic nervous system (ANS) allowed animals and man to be ready whenever threats to personal safety were present. When we are able to out fox the threat then our sympathetic cascade may slowly return to normal as the parasympathetic breaking mechanism exerts its balancing influence.
There is no way to avoid a stressful life it seems.  Some people are better than others at reducing the impact of stress.  Excercise, healthy eating, regular sleep, and mindfulness reduce the impact of the stress and tension we all experience in our lives.   Michael Sefton 2017
The automatic process of sympathetic arousal ramps us up as if to say “bring it on” – activating us to fight or fly the coop.  The problem all too often is an insidious elevation of normal baseline physiological values that create a sympathetic-parasympathetic mismatch. This results from over active adrenergic fibers largely activated by hormones such a cortisol looking the system.  Over time this leads to heart disease, hypertension, and a host of inflammatory diseases and may prolong those needessly.

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Shown here is the HRV biofeedback screen used for paced breathing and coherence training seen here at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital

The primary goal of all modalities of biofeedback including psychphysiologic and neurofeedback is to restore the body to its “normal” state.  The process promotes mindfulness and paced breathing to gradually lower respiratory drive, reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and enhance other abnormal physiological readings of skin conductance, finger temperature, and electromyogrphy.  It takes practice and understanding of its value. Not everyone has elevations in each these bodily measures. The specifics of abnormal findings are discussed as part of the treatment plan with the doctor or clinician.
There is a well established link between heart rate and the pace of breathing. Autonomic regulation is the role of the brain stem that maintains the diurnal pattern of arousal for wakeful activity and sleep hygiene.  The brain stem regulates heart rate and respiratory drive as well.  These functions are vital to survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system.  The ANS functions as the brain and body’s alarm system signaling the need for fight-flight activation.  When this system is damaged due to traumatic brain injury the recovering subject can have wild swings of autonomic arousal such as elevated heart rate – patients sometimes chug along at 140-160 while autonomic storming.   Paroxysmal changes in blood pressure may pose significant risk, respiratory rate may become tachypnic, patients frequent are febrile and may become excessively sweaty  as a consequence of autonomic dysfunction.
“Autonomic dysfunction must be carefully managed in patients recovering from TBI. This is not conceptually novel although its application to health conditions continues to broaden. Biofeedback may be a useful modality for migraine headaches, anxiety, pain management, concussion, and stress. I have used a combination of physiologic and neurofeedback for patients with failure to thrive, depression, post-concussion syndrome, and severe traumatic brain injury” 2014).  In 2006 I was invited to London, UK to present the findings of a case study with a high school boy who had sustained a severe TBI and was in a minimally conscious state.  The results were remarkable and not entirely the result of the neurofeedback protocol I used with him.  Our team did a good job keeping him moving and gradually he became more functional and regained his independence. It was a fun trip I was able to take with colleague Paul Liquori, MD, medical director at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Bradford.
Relaxation and mindfulness have existed for over 60 years bringing together conscious conscious effort to control bodily system that were once thought to be automatic.  Sefton, 2016

Sefton, M (2014) Blog post: https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/consultation/topics-in-neuropsychology/tbi/autonomic-dysfunction/ Taken 11-13-17.
Sefton, M (2016) Blog post: https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/04/01/biofeedback-for-post-concussion-syndrome/ Taken 11-13-17

Clock of the Week – September 25, 2017 Micrographia

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Clock of the week drawn by 79-Y/O male with bilateral embolic CVA (note size approximately 8 mm)
WESTBOROUGH, MA September 25, 2017 This clock is unique simply on the basis of it’s size.  The scale below the 3 clocks is used for measuring wounds.  It was given to me by the certified wound care specialist here at Whittier.  The top clock was the “finished” product.  One can see all the numbers were written and there was a series of hands drawn that appear as scribble moving from left to right.  The numbers fall outside of the circle – drawn by the patient.  You can appreciate what effort went into the clock as small as it was – only 8 millimeters across.  Micrographia is a term given to drawings that are tiny – a syndrome often assigned to dysfunction in the frontal lobe of the brain.  Just to be sure, I consulted with Lezak – 3rd Edition.  Micrographic written output is seen in patients with Parkinson’s Disease. In another blog published in 2016, I shared a similar clock and describe this interesting syndrome.

Clock of the Week

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Dr. Michael Sefton at Boston Museum of Fine Arts
WESTBOROUGH, MA September 15, 2017  Much has been published about the utility of the clock drawing in making preliminary assumptions about the cognitive health of an individual who may be referred for neuropsychological assessment.  I use it all the time and those of you who have submitted clocks for publication here agree with my assumptions.  The photograph at the left was taken at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by a colleague Dr. David Kent, a neuropsychologist from Worcester, MA. There are several posts that identify some of the literature behind the assumptions I make about clock drawing and cognition.  Here is another link: Clocks and cognition

 

 

Click and see the interesting “Clock of the week

The state of knowledge and policy on concussion in Rugby Football Union

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Westborough, MA  August 15, 2017 Just as American’s have begun to understand the true impact of concussion and the risk associated with repeat concussion and other blows to the head, the Rugby Football Union has started to take a serious look at the problem with respect to the long-term consequence of brain injury.  According to the New York Times in April 2014 “a tidal wave of earnings” may confound the rightful medical response to concussion injuries and dominate the return to play decisions on behalf of athletes who are found to have concussion. The remove-from-competition protocol has not taken hold in European rugby where players are routinely returned to play after a 5 minute time out during which they are examined by team medical personnel. Most are back on the pitch within 5 minutes. I have seen college Rugby games where this precise “recovery” was the norm.  The NCAA has protocols for managing concussion but in some club sports these protocols are not followed.
In 2011, Ben Robinson, a 14-year old boy in Northern Ireland, died from second impact syndrome resulting from playing through a concussion. He returned to the game three times after first being injured in a high school rugby match.  Ultimately he died after collapsing on the rugby pitch. Second impact syndrome results from a repeat brain injury resulting in a metabolic “energy crisis” that interferes with brain function including maintaining homeostasis on a cellular level. I  have documented it in several published Word Press Human Behavior posts.
More recently Irish Boxer Mike Towell died from second impact syndrome hours after his fight much the same way as 14-year old Ben Robinson.  He was seriously injured early in the bout and knocked down.  His toughness and tenacity along with unacceptable referee decision making allowed him to return to the fight. “The assumption that rugby had a better handle on concussions than football, however, might have been flawed from the get-go. The most recent injury audit performed by England’s Rugby Football Union (RFU) established that concussions in elite-level professional games were occurring at a rate of 13.4 per 1,000 player hours.” Bandidi, 2016
The NCAA protocol is cited here.  “Medical personnel with training in the diagnosis, treatment and initial management of acute concussion must be “available” at all NCAA varsity practices in the following contact/collision sports: basketball; equestrian; field hockey; football; ice hockey; lacrosse; pole vault; rugby; skiing; soccer; wrestling.” Female athletes are particularly vulnerable to concussion and tend to have longer recover times. Concussion is sometimes considered an invisible injury largely due to the absence of frank signs of injury on the outside of the head.
According to the BBC, Towell was knocked to the mat in the first round of a 10 round bout.  He was given a standing 8 count and continued the fight.  Some said he dominated the next two rounds when finally in the fifth round he was again knocked down and the fight was ended.  Michael Sefton blog 2016

Burns, J. NY Times, In Europe, Echoes of America as Concussions Spur Debate, April 5, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/sports/in-europe-echoes-of-america-as-concussions-spur-debate.html?_r=0  Taken June 13, 2017
Sefton, M. (2016) Second Impact Syndrome. https://concussionassessment.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/second-impact-syndrome-rare-but-often-fatal/ Taken August 7, 2017
Bandidi, P. (2016) Rugby, like NFL, doesnt have the conussion-issue figured out.  http://www.espn.com/espn/story/_/id/16029747/rugby-nfl-concussion-issue-figured-out Taken August 7, 2017
NCAA Concussion Concussion Safety Protocol. Guidelines https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/2017SSI_ConcussionSafetyProtocolChecklist_20170322.pdf Taken August 8, 2017

Construction and Self-monitoring

WESTBOROUGH, MA August 6, 2017 Self-monitoring refers to the capacity to observe one’s own behavior in real time. It is easy to see when someone lacks this important neurocognitive feature. Walk into any middle school and there will be hundreds of boys who act and behave without forethought.  Self-monitoring is a higher-order function that sets us apart from other species – even primates and is thought to mature in the second or third decade of life. It is possible to lose the ability to watch and adjust behavior such as with traumatic brain injury involving frontal lobe structures and in disorders of cognition such as dementia.  How is it possible to lose appreciation for the organization of the task (see drawing on left) and fail to notice one’s errors?
The bicycle task requires a rudimentary capacity to envision the bike and draw it from the image one has in his head.  It requires conceptualization, motor control and visual motor integration for success.  The task is age old – like the clocks frequently featured in these pages. Self-monitoring is a prerequisite for social pragmatics – a fancy term for acting your age. In some cases the failure in self-monitoring results in errors in behavior that can become socially debilitating – especially when the patient demonstrates an indifference to his limitations and does not respond to redirection and feedback.  The task of constructing a bicycle is a screening for higher order deficits.  Like the clock drawing it requires planning, organization, even mechanical awareness.  Muriel Lezak says that regardless of lesion the task requires judgment, organization, conceptual integration, and accurate self-appraisal.  Those with defective self-monitoring often miss important features and omit crucial parts of the bicycle’s mechanism like pedals, chain or both (Lezak, 1995)

 

 

“The capacity to self-monitor and modify one’s behavior is required in an open society or the lack of order would result in people being oblivious to each other and indifferent toward their personal effect on social and interpersonal relationships”    Michael Sefton 2017
In the first bike drawing the patient constructed the bicycle as asked but became confused very quickly.  the two objects extending out from the left and right are wheels that were drawn after I had asked “how does it work?” Interestingly one of the scoring criteria are the correct placement of spokes on the wheels. There are no spokes on the wheels of the second and third drawings. In some cases the concept of perseveration is revealing of decreased self-monitoring.  In a published blog the concept is described.  It is the process of repeating the same response over and over without awareness.

Lezak, M. Neuropsychological Assessment – Third Edition. Oxford Press, 1995.
Sefton, M. (2016) Perseveration, severation, eration, ation, blog post, taken August 8, 2017.

The results of postmortem examination of over 100 brains of NFL athletes are in

WESTBOROUGH,MA July 25, 2017 The laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine has recently completed its initial examination of over 100 brains donated by the family members of those athletes who have died because of marked behavior and personality changes attributed to playing football.  The results confirm the presence of destructive proteins that have come to be known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  This was first reported over 10 years ago and was featured in the movie Concussion released in 2015 starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, M.D. who first reported on the syndrome.