BOSTON (CBS) — Researchers may be one step closer to diagnosing the brain disorder CTE in patients who are still alive.

CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disorder associated with repetitive hits to the head, as seen in many professional football players, including former patriots player Aaron Hernandez.

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While CTE is often suspected in players with mood, thinking, and memory problems, it can’t actually be confirmed until after someone dies, but now researchers at Boston University School of Medicine have been able to identify the abnormal protein associated with CTE in the brains of a small group of former NFL players while they were living.

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“The study found that an experimental PET scan could detect this abnormal Tau protein in the brains of former NFL players with a variety of symptoms while they were alive,” explains Dr. Robert Stern, the Director of Clinical Research at the Boston University CTE Center. “That’s really important because in order for us to answer some really important questions about CTE, we need to be able to diagnose people while people are living,” Dr. Stern adds.

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Dr. Stern says a larger more comprehensive study funded by the NIH is already underway involving hundreds of former college and professional players from around the country trying to answer who gets CTE and who doesn’t, what are the risk factors, and how we can treat and prevent it.