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Brain disease breakthrough? New study diagnoses CTE in living ex-football players

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Researchers at UCLA say they've identified a degenerative brain disease called 'CTE' in ex-football players who are still living. It's a ground-breaking step for now, and it could lead to improved treatment in the future.

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The football world has been wringing its hands for a few years now because of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by concussions and other head-on collisions that happen constantly on a football field. A number of players have committed suicide in the past few years and later been diagnosed with this condition after careful autopsies examining their brain. To take the most famous and recent example, there's Junior Seau, who committed suicide last spring. Two weeks ago it was revealed his brain was degenerating thanks to CTE.

It's all pretty horrifying.

But now we have some potentially good news. Out at UCLA, as ESPN's Outside the Lines reports, researchers say they've diagnosed this disease in living patients.

Brain scans performed on five former NFL players revealed images of the protein that causes football-related brain damage -- the first time researchers have identified signs of the crippling disease in living players.

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"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, a Chicago neurosurgeon 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."

And from another of the study's authors:

"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.

Everyone involved with the study stresses that the results are just preliminary and none of this is definitive, but if it's not exactly a breakthrough yet, this is the most encouraging piece of research news we've seen since we first began to understand CTE.

For one thing, if scientists can begin to successfully diagnose this disease in living patients, it can lead to more engaged treatment and understanding for the players who are suffering, helping us guard against future tragedies. Another potential benefit: Diagnosis in living patients could mean that instead of trying to poll former players and relying on identifying vague symptoms, researchers could develop a scientific process that tells us exactly who has CTE, a process that could give us a much better indication of how many former and/or current players are suffering.

It's still early, but a murky science is slowly getting clearer. You can check out the full report over at ESPN. What it means for the future of football and football players remains to be seen, but more information is never a bad thing.