Dr. Julian Bailes, who works with Nowinski, examined Benoit's brain by using a unique staining method that highlights areas of trauma. The condition they found is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Bailes said they found damage that was the result of "multiple traumatic injuries."
After Benoit's toxicology report showed positive for steroids, the initial thinking was that so-called "'roid rage" might have been behind what happened that fateful weekend.
"There's no consensus in the medical community that this issue of 'roid rage — uncontrolled violence, precipitated by seemingly normal life stressors — there's no consensus that that even exists," said Bailes.
"The changes that we see in his brain tissue were not caused by steroids. There's no medical evidence or research that's ever shown that anabolic steroids cause those dead neurons. Some people would even say that steroids are good for the brain, that they support the brain. They don't destroy it."
"Everyone is pointing to steroids and drug abuse," said Michael Benoit. "It's my feeling now, that it's much more than that — that it's brain injury that has been causing these problems in the wrestling community."
Bailes says that the risk of brain damage begins after three concussions.
"Our research in football players is that it seems to be a cutoff at three," he said. "That with three or more major, or noted concussions, that that's where the risk really begins."
The get-back-in the-game mentality engrained in the culture of contact sports make this message a tough one to spread. Concussions often go undiagnosed — and sometimes even undetected — by those who suffer them, making the unchartered waters of studying their long-term effects all the more difficult.
This difficulty is, of course, compounded by the fact that one has to have died in order to be examined."
Researchers know that all five athletes who were studied showed disturbing behaviorial commonalities: seemingly happy dispositions turned sour, then, severe depression, and then, suicide.
"We certainly were aware, or have been made aware, of some issues that he was having, from some neighbors — of some strange behavior that was going on," Michael Benoit said. "He had started to wear a rosary around his neck … he wasn't all that religious a person."
A sudden shift toward spiritualty can be interpreted as the result of dementia.
"Right now, I don't know what role it played, but the fact that he became more religious at the end did set off alarms in my head," said Nowinski. "I had heard that Chris placed Bibles next to the body. That actually did raise red flags in my head, because … a few of our prior cases had become very religious, where they had not been, at the end of their lives."
The implications of the scientific findings are startling, but connecting the evidence to homicidal behavior is a distinct challenge.
"I think we don't have the answer," said Bailes. "I think Chris Benoit was an extreme example, obviously."
Could the condition of Benoit's brain have impacted what he did?