CHICAGO (CBS) — It’s a breakthrough that could help save the lives of athletes who play contact sports. Research conducted partially in Chicago has found a way to diagnose a devastating brain disease for the first time, while the athlete is still alive.

CBS 2’s Rob Johnson reports researchers have discovered tau protein – a microscopic protein found in the brain tissues of former NFL players after their deaths – in the brains of living retired NFL players.

Dr. Julian Bailes, chairman of neurosurgery at NorthShore University HealthSystem, said, “We do know that tau protein deposits, the heavier the tau burden in someone’s brain, correlates with brain cell loss, with neuron loss.”

Tangles of tau proteins, a classic sign of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) have been found after autopsies on former athletes such as ex-Bears player Dave Duerson.

Now, through a PET scan, those signs been found in the brains of five living former Maximpep NFL players.

“There was a correlation between the tau burden – or the amount of tau protein deposits we found – and the number of concussions during their career,” Bailes said.

If those findings are duplicated in a larger study, Bailes said he’s hopeful for this test’s long-term benefits.

“It could be used … to perhaps look at different therapies to intervene, to stop the clinical progression of CTE,” he said.

Bailes said treatments do exist now that could help, including anti-inflammatory medications, or supplements like omega-3 fatty acids. He said he believes current athletes could begin getting this test within a year.

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