April 29, 2013 -- A Boston psychiatrist wants the brain of slain marathon bomb suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev studied like a crime scene to look for evidence that his boxing career may have left him brain damaged and possibly prone to depression and aggression.
Tsarnaev, the eldest of two sibling suspects in the April 15 attacks that killed three people and injured more than 200, died four days later in a shootout with police. His bullet-riddled body has yet to be claimed, and Dr. Michael Craig Miller claims his brain could hold important clues.
"There are political motives, social motives, cultural motives, but one that gets less attention is the biological basis for all this," said Miller, a psychiatrist at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where Tsarnaev died and his younger brother, Dzhohkar Tsarnaev, was treated for bullet wounds.
In an op-ed published in the Boston Globe, Miller argued that neuroscientists should be given the chance to examine Tsarnaev's brain.
"This suspect's brain may teach us a small but important bit about the biology of violence," he wrote.
Miller, a former Watertown, Mass., resident who is also an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said Tsarnaev's boxing career could have triggered chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease linked to concussions. Researchers at Boston University have found evidence of CTE in the brains of 68 deceased military veterans and athletes, including eight boxers.
"Our local experts should get the chance to study Tamerlan Tsarnaev's brain. And they should study it as closely as our forensic experts have studied a few blocks along Boylston Street," Miller wrote.
CTE is associated with impaired judgment, impulse control problems and aggression, according to Boston University's Center for the Study of Chronic Encephalopathy. The condition, which shares symptoms with Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's disease, is also marked by memory loss, confusion and depression.
It's the second time in four months that the brain of an alleged killer has become the topic of such interest and speculation. In January 2013, one month after Adam Lanza opened fire at a Connecticut elementary school killing 26 people, including 20 children, and then himself, a medical examiner said he found nothing unusual in the 20-year-old's brain.
"It's a fishing expedition," Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Wayne Carver II told the Connecticut Post of the Lanza brain study.
But Miller described the case of Charles Whitman, who in 1966 killed his mother, his wife, and 17 strangers at the University of Texas in Austin. The day before, he wrote a note requesting an autopsy of his brain – an autopsy that revealed a tumor pressing on his amygdala, an almond-shaped brain structure that regulates emotion.
The pathologist ultimately decided that the tumor had no bearing on the case, and that Whitman was "a psychopath of the worst kind," according to Miller's op-ed.
"Even though there's a biological basis for our actions, we're still responsible for our actions," Miller said, adding that Tsarnaev might have "a perfectly a healthy brain" or evidence of disease that fails to fully explain his actions. "But it's in his brain that these ideas were formed. And so it would be interesting to look at that organ, where those ideas began."