Researchers believe a newly discovered biomarker may hold the key toward identifying and treating the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) during life for the first time.
The findings, published Tuesday in the journal PLOS ONE, might also help distinguish CTE from Alzheimer's disease.
The only scientifically accepted method to detect CTE currently is a postmortem exam of the brain. But this new study could help change that.
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine and the VA Boston Healthcare System studied the brains of 23 former college and professional football players, 50 non-athletes with Alzheimer's disease and 18 "non-athlete controls."
They found levels of the biomarker CCL11 were significantly elevated in the brains of people with CTE, but not those without it.
Researchers also noticed elevated CCL11 levels in samples of the subjects' cerebrospinal fluid, indicating that fluid could help assist in detecting CTE before a person's death.
"Not only did this research show the potential for CTE diagnosis during life, but it also offers a possible mechanism for distinguishing between CTE and other diseases," study author Jonathan Cherry, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in neurology at BUSM said in a statement from a university release.
The researchers acknowledged that more studies are needed to determine the effectiveness of using CCL11 levels in the diagnosis process.
Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System published a study earlier this year showing that CTE had been diagnosed in the 110 of 111 former NFL players whose brains were donated for research.
Last week, the attorney for Aaron Hernandez revealed the former New England Patriots tight end had an advanced form of CTE. Hernandez was 27 when he hanged himself while serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd.
USA TODAY contributed to this story.