The Brain of a Bomber: Did Damage Caused By Boxing Play a Role in the Boston Bombings?

Questions about traumatic brain injury and bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev begin to surface

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Glenn DePriest / Getty Images

From Right: Tamerlan Tsamaev fights Lamar Fenner during the 2009 Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions in Salt Lake City, on May 4, 2009.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev is telling no tales. The older of the two brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombings was likely the one who planned the attack, but when he died in a shootout with police just days after the blasts, his thoughts and motivations vanished with him. But the brain that was home to his angry mind remains, and in this case that may mean something.

Tsarnaev was an amateur boxer who won the New England Golden Gloves competition as recently as 2009 and 2010. That speaks to a young man with a healthy sense of discipline and focus, and if he had a violent streak, it was violence well-channeled. But his sport of choice suggests the possibility of something else too: traumatic brain injury. As the National Football League and other pro sports increasingly reckon with the early dementia, mental health issues, suicides and even criminal behavior of former players, the risk of what’s known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), is becoming clear. Roughly 4,000 former NFL players and 2,000 of their spouses are currently suing the league, claiming that the perils of head injuries were never explained to them and, indeed, that the players were pushed to get back on the field even when it was clear that they had suffered concussions.

It was inevitable, then that questions would be raised about  whether Tsarnaev’s brain may have been similarly traumatized during the years he boxed, and if there had indeed been damage, did that spark his murderous behavior? The answer is a likely yes to the first part and a likely no to the second.

(MORE: Terrorists and Mass Shooters: More Similar Than We Thought)

Boxers are perhaps the best-studied victims of CTE, with the consequences of consistent trauma to the head described initially as “punch drunk,” but emerging as CTE in the 1950s, says Dr. Robert Stern, cofounder of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. The term “better describes a neurodegenerative disease caused, at least in part, by repetitive brain trauma,” he says.

The presence of CTE can only be confirmed postmortem, by looking for tau proteins in the brain—produced when neural connections stretch and show signs of wear. Whether the presence of those proteins, however, play any role in behavior is less clear. In general, older people with CTE exhibit problems with memory, attention span and the ability to learn new material—all of the things we associate with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. They may also exhibit impulsiveness, anger, situational explosiveness and paranoia, which are familiar as well to families of people suffering from dementia. In younger people, the predominance of the symptoms is frequently reversed: outbursts and lack of impulse control come first, with an underlying loss of cognitive abilities eventually following.

(PHOTOS: Joy and Relief in Boston After Bombing Suspect’s Arrest)

And that’s the problem with looking for CTE in Tarnaev. Authorities haven’t revealed if they plan to examine his brain, and unless they have taken some necessary steps to preserve it for study they may have lost that option already. But it may not matter. “The Boston bombing was a planned attack,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, also of Boston University and co-director of the Encephalopathy Center. “There were lots of explosive devices put together in a very premeditated way. There was no flipping out here, no impulsiveness. That’s not what you see with CTE in younger people.” That doesn’t mean Tsarnaev didn’t have brain trauma related to his boxing. “I think he did,” Cantu says. It’s just that it may not have caused his criminal behavior.

(MORE: Brother’s Keeper: Did Older Sibling Lure Brother Into Plot?)

That points to the difficulty of establishing any link between the condition of a brain and actions that may or may not result from it. Cantu points to the case of the late pro wrestler Chris Benoit, who killed his wife and son and then himself in 2007. When his brain was studied after he died, it showed signs of CTE—but here too it might have had little to do with his murderous behavior. “In Benoit’s case the behavior was again premeditated. It took place slowly, over the course of a weekend. He even sedated his son first so he wouldn’t suffer,” Cantu says. Criminally pathological? Certainly. But triggered by CTE? Probably not.

(MORE: Brothers in Arms: Sibling Psychology and the Bombing Suspects)

For now, there is no cure for CTE and the best treatment is prevention, which sports leagues from Pop Warner football on up are beginning to address with rules changes and more stringent medical monitoring of players. As my colleague Sean Gregory reported in January, investigators at UCLA have developed a still-experimental technique to detect CTE in the brains of living patients, using positron emission tomography (PET) scans and a radioactive dye that clings to tau proteins. Early diagnosis, if it becomes routine, could be used to keep already ill people away from contact sports and prevent their condition from being exacerbated by more hits. They might also be enrolled in treatment and therapy programs that would slow the onset of what for now are inevitable symptoms.

(PHOTOS: Marathon Carnage: Explosions in Boston)

While none of this likely would have deterred Tsarnaev, it might be used to diagnose other people at risk of explosive CTE-related violence and stop them before they act out. By treating a single person’s wounded brain, doctors could one day save uncounted other lives.

98 comments
pepperfinger
pepperfinger

Seems like a stretch to me. Had nothing to do with head trauma. Everything to do with religious nutjobs going jihad on a world that knows better. 


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AdrianWrois
AdrianWrois

This is an insult to not just a sport, but to everyone of the victims.

jimmyb101
jimmyb101

Ridiculous, he was an armature boxer! Look at the likes of boxers such as ricky hatton, a professional; boxer who is known for taking severe punishment in the ring. Absolutely no signs of slurred speech and definitely no signs of him committing an atrocity similar to this! There is no excuse for what this man has done apart from being a weak minded individual who is easily lead astray.

CRASHTESTDUMMY
CRASHTESTDUMMY

Wonderful article many thanks to Jeffrey Kulger.

As my name indicates I have intentionally caused brain damage. Lots is written about the individual who caused my brain injury, But  it would be my belief, that much more, has not been written.

My injury was sustained when I was less than one week old, I was severely shaken and the back of my head was slammed in to the mattress of my baby bed hard enough to fracture my skull.

These movements of shaking and slamming are identical to what scientists were doing to monkeys, trying to solve the problem of navy pilots loosing consciousness, upon the catapulting of their aircraft off the deck of aircraft carriers.

No police report was made, however I was taken to the hospital emergency room, no record exist. My mother told no one except me.

When I was around three or four, employees of the United States Government seemed to have knowledge of the injuries that I had sustained, I know this for they would frequently questioned me when I was riding my tricycle in front of my home.

Major question would how did they obtain this knowledge.

Did the hospital forward the emergency room records to some agency of the USG. Was the shaking and slamming of my head part of some sick but covert medical experiment.

Today I am in my sixties and am still the subject of intrigue by people in the USG.

jeffklugerIsAMoron2013
jeffklugerIsAMoron2013

 you really are a piece of s h i t. this is one reason the majority of americans hate TIME. 

moral relativity is the life of this mag.

you sir, should really find another career. this makes me sick. you are on par with Westboro. 

DonBrewer
DonBrewer

What a banal piece of trash this is.  The author is the one who is punch drunk.

JustinCase999
JustinCase999

Are you freaking kidding me?  Your worthless liberal rag of a magazine looks for any excuse to be apologetic for terrorists and the progress left liberal cause.   I can't believe you wrote this insanity. 

VladamirUntruksur
VladamirUntruksur

What ridiculous drivel. I boxed Golden Gloves for 8 years and was a top state contender in my college years and I NEVER heard of Scythian like this. Quit making excuses for a terrorist.

patio1334
patio1334

How about blaming stupid hate?!!!How about blaming horrible parenting? How about naming all the other head wounded bombing boxers- Klueger or whoever you are from Time -did you box? You sound a little nuts! Does your head hurt all the time or just when you're writing? 

valentine.godoflove
valentine.godoflove

blame "boxing".........why not blame.....them being born?.......

IDIOTS......STUPID

valentine, comedian

JimRoof
JimRoof

Yeah... and just look at all the OTHER terrorist bombers that have come from the boxing world and from professional football.  There's... ummm... uh... and... ummm... erhhh... and also... uh...

warnertoddhuston1
warnertoddhuston1

Great satire... wait, you were SERIOUS about this? Is it because we have an epidemic of boxers bombing our cities... or... ANY other boxers doing so? Even ONE other? You are an idiot, Jeffery Klunker.

itsy_bitsy
itsy_bitsy

Okay!  Here it comes!  All the liberal excuses and reasons why this poor muslim immigrant wasn't REALLY RESPONSIBLE for his heinous actions!  Like: Killing three people, l a small child!  Maiming many others with lost limbs!  Shooting a young police man in the back of the head just to get his gun!  But by gosh, he really couldn't help himself because he was a boxer!!  This crap is so despicable it doesn't deserve a response, but I'm so damn mad I doing it anyway!!

FredC.Dobbs
FredC.Dobbs

It is more like an Islamic disorder.

PageTurner
PageTurner

Muslim Mohammad Ali was a conscientous  objector because Islam is a peaceful relgion but a radical muslim who's no where near as good a boxer might have been radical because he was boxer.  Which is it?  Why haven't more boxers blown stuff up?

It has everything to do you with super cool America hating libs who coddle and excuse (like now) vermin who suck at the hardworking taxpayer's teat while you villify everything patriotic.


What kind of message are you progressivel libs sending?  When will you wake up and take responsibility for the hatred you promulgate? 

Lunasea
Lunasea

I agree with the column, but then, I've been punched in the head a lot!!!!  Duh!

GulfPundit
GulfPundit

It's not about Islam, again. Even if Muslims tell you it is, it's not. It never is and never will be

Time2Cancel
Time2Cancel

"Did Brain Damage Caused By Liberalism Play a Role in Jeffrey Kluger's Pathetic Attempt to Absolve the Boston Bombers of Blame?"

FrankMcLaughlin
FrankMcLaughlin

I boxed in the New England golden gloves in 1988.  We wore headgear and used 16 oz gloves. We fought 3, 3 minute rounds.  Highly unlikely that Tamerlin would have had enough rounds of sparring or competition to be punchy at 26. I also boxed at Oxford University in 1987. No headgear, lighter gloves, shorter rounds.  I'm sure some of the guys I boxed with in Providence and Fall River turned to lives of crime. But it would have been far more related to their personal circumstances and relative lack of moral compass than to any of their boxing activities.  Similarly all of my boxing team at Oxford have gone onto successful careers in business, science, medicine and law.  Boxing predetermined nothing.

Gooms
Gooms

TIME Magazine wins the "World Champion Moral Relativist" of the decade award.

This "it couldn't possibly be their Islamic faith" meme jumped the shark a long time ago. OH.... btw...I boxed for seven years and took WAY more abuse then this scumbag ever did.

Give it up TIME.

morganfrost
morganfrost

"Roughly 4,000 former NFL players and 2,000 of their spouses are currently suing the league, claiming that the perils of head injuries were never explained to them and, indeed, that the players were pushed to get back on the field even when it was clear that they had suffered concussions."

Out of curiosity,  roughly what percentage of these 4,000 former NFL players have engaged in terrorist acts against America since their retirements?  And if the answer is, as I suspect, "roughly, zero," then why are we having this conversation?

Time2Cancel
Time2Cancel

If I sketched a picture of Mohammed, would Jeffrey Kluger try to kill me?

GulfPundit
GulfPundit

This may be one of the most intellectually bankrupt and morally obtuse articles I've ever read. But hey, keep grasping at those straws! We're all getting a good laugh.

Question: If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, what is it?

MichaelStephenson
MichaelStephenson

Jefferey-- If you really try, I'll bet you can form the syllables Is-lam-ic Ter-ror-ism.  Try it!


Anyway, after studiously avoiding the word "Islam" and "Muslim" in you last piece, good luck on getting to the bottom of things.

bluesman
bluesman

How about the mother who said today "I Don’t Care If My Youngest Son is Going to be Killed Today… I Will Say Allah Akbar!" Was she punched too hard too? The writer of this article is a moron.

funkdm
funkdm

Are we really saying "he must have been punch drunk to have done this"?  Why is it so hard to say he must have been really indoctrinated by the religion of peace to have done this.  It is not like there is no history of this.

BillyBell
BillyBell

Making excuses, no excuse for what he and his brother done.

GregPalmer
GregPalmer

How can the author of this article submit this article with any sincerity?    This article is an abortion.  

db4490
db4490

Watch out!!!  Muhammad Ali might be the next bomber!!!

fleurdelys0404
fleurdelys0404

The liberal machine at work. But this time absolutely idiotic.  They are trying to pin it on boxing, Misha the Armenian, the far away he was from his mother, that he had no friends in the US (yet, he married an american idiot). IT is all, but simply ISLAM.   The Korhan say: you shall kill the infidel!!!!!!!! Get it to you head Mr. Kluger.  On top of its savagery Islam has promoted a prophet who has not even existed.  Muhamed is not a name it is an adjective attributed to Christ in Aramaic. The person Muhamed existed like Ali Baba and the 40 thieves and Aladdin, fairy tales with a malice, savagery, and the urge to rule the world.

RJWagner
RJWagner

You know, I've always felt this call to jihad like a gravitational pull.  Then, I realized this Irish Catholic used to play some football, and suddenly, it all made sense.  Thank you Time Magazine!!

MattHicks
MattHicks

The Brain of a Journalist:  Did Damage Caused By Working at Time Play a Role in this Column? 

es
es

Hey Jeffrey Kluger Are you f....kidding me?!!!!  can you go out and get some news worth writing; instead of sitting on your desk and writing the most ignorant article I ever seen.  It is very disrecpectful to the victims for you to come up with something like this.

Do you have a brain?   I can believe you have a job, I hope it is no for long.

I hope on your way home you run into a boxer and he beats the heck out of you.

rutnerh
rutnerh

Brain damage from boxing may have been a factor, but generally is not serious in a young person. Violent contact in sports like boxing and hockey should be banned. But there will always be a need for gladiators willing to sell their lives or health for the enjoyment of demented viewers seeking violent entertainment.

BobHawkins
BobHawkins

This is absolutely the most contrived, far=-fetched and blatantly ignorant "news article" I have ever read.   The man was a terrorist - he was practicing his brand of Islam.  I will not go on a rant of liberals and conservatives. 

What I will politely mention in that TIME is scraping the bottom of the barrel for news as well as news writers.

hdroadkingpd
hdroadkingpd

This is an insult to not just a sport, but to everyone of the victims. Once again, liberals hate the fact that radical Islam exists, and is the root cause of the majority of terrorist attacks throughout the world!

Denesius
Denesius

This is nonsense: the guy was a golden gloves boxer for a couple of years, not a life-long pro.  Anyone consider that he pursued boxing BECAUSE of his propensity for violence?

MichaelLFreeman
MichaelLFreeman

As a former boxer and boxing instructor, I can tell you that CTE is highly unlikely as a cause.  There is a vast difference between amateur  and professional pugilism.  Golden Gloves matches are 3 rounds and are monitored closely by referees to prevent the competitors from getting hurt.  Example:  Standing 8 counts are used to protect dazed fighters. BTW: Headgear does little or nothing to protect boxers from brain injuries  

 Professionals fight an average of 8 rounds (or more) and referees give a lot more leeway and allow a lot more action-after all it is a spectator sport and the fighters are given the opportunity to come back given their livelihood may be at stake.  The biggest cause of brain injuries in boxing is the hundreds of rounds of sparring to prepare for dozens of pro fights over years, if not decades and those who do get punchy, and I have known a few, don't show symptoms for many, many years.

Lastly, let's stop over thinking the causes of angry white men who kill via terrorist bombings or mass shootings.  The answer is very simple. These people are all unhappy losers who blame others for their lot in life.  Personal responsibility-it's a bitch.  Nobody likes to take full responsibility for their life and actions, (example:  huge numbers of lawsuits) and these few outcasts take an extreme path, in perverse delusions of grandeur.

 One thing we CAN do-Stop glorifying these acts with all the media time-TV sports coverage does not show fans running on the field.  If networks refused to give 24/7 coverage, read manifestos, etc, or we the public stopped watching, these events would slowly cease.

SamFraser
SamFraser

Hmmmmmm....... why are people afraid to call this what it is, another example of a crazy Muslim that only wants to kill those who do not believe as he does.  This political correctness BS is going way too far, they label this story "the brain of a boxer" when it should be "the brain of a psycho muslim terrorist."

tomsquawk
tomsquawk

well, 1st of all GET TO KNOW THE PERSON! that might help. no, wait, test, scan, catalog, put in database and then can't track him in & out of the country but at least the effort was well funded. Problem is we're all too PC to say anything. PTSD, CTE, whatever. 

RickHunter
RickHunter

And thus starts the parade of excuses for why this virus did what he did.

Rounderboy
Rounderboy

Of course... This is why so many NFL players line up to become terrorists. Sure "questions... begin to surface" because goofballs are asking them. Add to the boxing question these: Did he watch Netflix? Did he enjoy sushi? Did he like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain? Anything but, did he belong to a radical group, go to Russia for six month, and tell his uncle it's all about jihad?

AaronDarc
AaronDarc

This is a pretty weak way to try to harness google clicks off the boston bomber interest for advertising dollars. Of course, the article eventually admits that there is no connection whatsoever - but by then you've got people to click that headline, no? Time has stooped to a new low. Such a shame. I will not be coming back, and while I haven't been a subscriber for a while, I won't be ever again if this is what it's come to.