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Study: Abnormal brain proteins discovered in living ex-NFL players

An autopsy found CTE in the brain of Junior Seau. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images) Junior Seau was diagnosed with CTE following an autopsy. (Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

A recent discovery in the brain scans of five living ex-NFL players could lead to early diagnoses of a neurodegenerative disease triggered by repeated head trauma according to results published online Tuesday by the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry via ESPN.com.

The protein that causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients was discovered in the scans. Researchers who conducted the study at UCLA said the findings will provide a link to diagnosing the disease in living players and patients. The disease linked to dementia, memory loss and depression, previously could only be confirmed by examining the brain after death and autopsy.

"I've been saying that identifying CTE in a living person is the holy grail for this disease and for us to be able make advances in treatment," said Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and one of the study's co-authors. "It's not definitive, and there's a lot we still need to discover to help these people, but it's very compelling. It's a new discovery."

The UCLA researchers used a brain-imaging tool to examine the brains of former backup quarterbacks Wayne Clark, age 64; former Vikings linebacker Fred McNeill, age 59; and three unidentified players including a former center, age 45, who sustained 10 concussions. All five players' brains showed concentrations of tau, an abnormal protein that inhibits normal brain cells, especially in areas that control memory and emotions.

Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May, was diagnosed with CTE in January.

"The findings are preliminary -- we only had five players -- but if they hold up in future studies, this may be an opportunity to identify CTE before players have symptoms so we can develop preventative treatment," said Dr. Gary W. Small, the study's lead author and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.

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