Former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill had CTE, the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, at the time of his death.
The announcement, which came Thursday in a CNN report, is a potentially significant milestone, according to researchers connected with a UCLA study that identified signs of CTE in McNeill while he was still alive.
One of the researchers, Dr. Bennet Omalu, told Outside the Lines this is the first time such a correlation between UCLA's experimental testing and a posthumous examination has been seen. McNeill is the first ex-NFL player in the study to have died.
Of the 14 former players in the study -- a group that includes Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe DeLamielleure -- all had suffered concussions in their playing days, and all were found to have signs of CTE in the UCLA testing that began in 2012.
Many scientists attribute CTE to repetitive brain injuries and consider it a cause of memory loss, dementia and depression. A definitive diagnosis is possible only after an autopsy, but various efforts are underway to diagnose it in the living. In the UCLA study, positron emission tomography, or PET scans, and the chemical marker FDDNP are used to measure the abnormal brain proteins associated with CTE.
"Finding CTE after autopsy, correlated with a scan finding it during life, is a huge step forward to our understanding of CTE," neurosurgeon Julian Bailes, another of the UCLA study's researchers, told Outside the Lines.
Bailes and Omalu said they and their colleagues expect to publish the findings and conduct further testing, while pursuing the first FDA approval of a diagnostic method for CTE in the living.
McNeill, a practicing attorney after his NFL career ended, was clinically diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2014 and suffered from dementia. A day after his death in November at 63, his widow, Tia, told Outside the Lines that McNeill had deteriorated quickly but that his "spirit was there to the end."
"In order to eventually identify a treatment or a cure, we have to identify the disease objectively in living people," said Omalu, who examined McNeill's brain and spinal cord. "What the PET scan showed us is very similar to what the autopsy did."
Omalu, a forensic pathologist and the protagonist portrayed by Will Smith in the recent movie "Concussion," was the first to identify CTE in an NFL player, when he performed an autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster in 2002. He described the CTE finding in McNeill as a "major development" and said the case could be as valuable as Webster's.
Also on Thursday, The New York Times reported that Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood, who is 79, has no memory of playing Super Bowl I and is suffering from dementia. He lives in an assisted living facility in Washington, D.C., according to The Times.