Researchers have discovered images of a protein that causes football-related brain damage in living former players, a study that could help diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living patients.

"It is the Holy Grail of CTE research to be able to identify those who are suffering from the syndrome early, while they're still alive," said the study's author, Dr. Julian Bailes, director of the Brain Injury Research Institute and the Bennett Tarkington Chairman of the department of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, based in Evanston, Ill.

"Discovering the effects of prior brain trauma earlier opens up possibilities for symptom treatment and prevention."

CTE has been found in dozens of deceased former players, including linebacker Junior Seau, safety Dave Duerson and defensive back Ray Easterling, all of whom committed suicide.

Researchers recruited five retired NFL players 45 years or older, all with a history of one or more concussions. Some had cognitive or mood symptoms.

"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 preventive 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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The findings were published Tuesday in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

"I hope my participation in these kinds of studies will lead to a better understanding of the consequences of repeated head injury and new standards to protect players from concussions," said former NFL backup quarterback Wayne Clark, 65, who had normal cognitive function.