MIAMI (CBSMiami) – For the first time, researchers may be able to detect the devastating brain condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, in living people. The discovery, reported in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, could hold huge ramifications for football players.

The small study compared brain scans of five former NFL players who had suffered at least one concussion on the field with five non-players approximately the same age. According to the study, researchers found much more tau protein in the brains of the NFL players.

Tau proteins are numerous in neurons in the central nervous system, but when they are defective; they can result in dementia.

Researchers used a scan called a positron emission tomography, or PET scan, to find the tau. According to the study, the tau pattern they found was almost identical to what’s seen in CTE.

Previously CTE could only be detected after death. The disease is believed to have played a role in the deaths of former NFL players including Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. Both players committed suicide after lengthy careers in professional football.

The study would have to be repeated and done on a larger scale before the research can be proven. However, it’s a first step in the research of just how much damage concussions and repeated head injuries have on people.

The NFL is currently being sued by hundreds of former players claiming problems related to repeated concussions suffered while playing the league.