Pro Football Hall of Famer Fred Dean had stage 3 CTE; widow implores football players to support research to develop CTE diagnosis in living

Dean diagnosis coincides with release of new brain imaging study that reveals a path to diagnosing CTE during life

(Boston) – The widow of Pro Football Hall of Famer Fred Dean is sharing his CTE diagnosis publicly to honor his legacy and encourage support for research to diagnose the disease in the living. Researchers at the Veterans Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank posthumously diagnosed Dean with advanced CTE, stage 3 out of 4 possible stages, with 4 being the most severe. His family donated his brain after his passing from complications of Covid-19 in October 2020 at age 68.

“Fred always knew something was wrong with his brain, but he could never prove it,” said Pam Dean, Fred’s widow. “We are very thankful to the VA-BU-CLF researchers for finally giving us a name to put to his struggles. We hope families like ours will continue to donate their loved one’s brain and living players will volunteer for research so the experts can learn how to diagnose and treat this horrible disease while those suffering are still alive.”

Fred Dean was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008 for his prolific career as a defensive end for the San Diego Chargers and San Francisco 49ers. The sack specialist helped lead the 1981 and 1984 San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl victories and was selected to four Pro Bowl rosters. Pam Dean says Fred’s memory began to fade in his 60s, and daily tasks became hard to complete on his own, which is likely attributable to the progression of his CTE. Fred also suffered with chronic headaches for decades after a serious concussion he sustained on the field in his early 20s. His headaches were likely independent of his CTE.

A new study published Tuesday in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy by researchers at the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank provides the best evidence to date that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may expedite the ability to diagnose CTE with confidence in the living. If the finding is validated, it will help former athletes like Dean who experience CTE symptoms but struggle to get support without a formal diagnosis. 

Researchers found that participants diagnosed with CTE post-mortem had shrinkage in regions of the brain associated with CTE compared with healthy controls.

“Specifically, those with CTE had shrinkage in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, the regions most impacted by CTE,” said corresponding author Jesse Mez, MD, MS, director of the Boston University (BU) Alzheimer’s Disease Center Clinical Core and a BU CTE Center Investigator. “Subjects diagnosed with CTE were also seven time more likely than controls to have a cavum septum pellucidum, a distinctive abnormality easily seen on MRI.”

Researchers compared the MRIs of 55 men diagnosed with CTE to 31 male healthy controls with normal cognition at the time of their scan.

“MRI is commonly used to diagnose progressive brain diseases that are similar to CTE such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said first author Michael Alosco, PhD, associate professor of neurology at BU School of Medicine, co-director of BU Alzheimer’s Disease Center Clinical Core, and a lead BU CTE Center investigator. “Findings from this study show us what we can expect to see on MRI in CTE. This is very exciting because it brings us that much closer to detecting CTE in living people.”

Interview requests for the family of Fred Dean should be sent to Julia Manning at Those interested in speaking to study authors can direct their requests to Gina DiGravio at

About the Concussion Legacy Foundation:

The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It was founded by Robert Cantu, MD, and Chris Nowinski, PhD, to support athletes, Veterans, and all affected by concussions and CTE; achieve smarter sports and safer athletes through education and innovation; and to End CTE through prevention and research. For more information, please visit

About the VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank:

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is a partnership between the VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston University School of Medicine, and the Concussion Legacy Foundation, led by Dr. Ann McKee. It is the world’s largest CTE brain bank with subspecialties in concussion, ALS, and other consequences of brain trauma. The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank has diagnosed more than 70 percent of confirmed CTE cases globally. Click here for more information

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