DENVER (CBS4) – There’s been a first-of-its-kind discovery for researchers studying the effects of sports concussions. They say they have been able to identify problems in brains of athletes who are still alive.

Former NFL players were used in the study at UCLA and the hope is to find treatment in the early stages. Researchers warn the findings are very preliminary and more studies need to be done, but it could be a good start.

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Former San Diego Chargers quarterback Wayne Clark took his share of hits during his NFL career in the 1970s.

“The concussion gave me amnesia for a while,” Clark said. “A couple of years later I had another minor concussion.”

Now 65, Clark took part in the study that looked at retired football players and mild traumatic brain injuries.

Researchers at UCLA developed a brain imaging tool to identify abnormal proteins known as tau proteins that are associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

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“It occurs in professional athletes and one sees impairment in memory, sometimes dementia, sometimes behavioral problems, depression, suicidal behavior,” lead study author Dr. Gary Small said.

Until now a diagnosis of CTE could only be made during an autopsy. The UCLA scans are the first to identify the tau protein while the players are alive.

Clark’s PET scan showed high level of the tau protein in his brain. Right now he has age appropriate memory loss. Both he and researchers hope the findings will lead to treatment of CTE in its early stages.

Wayne Clark getting a scan (credit: CBS)

Wayne Clark getting a scan (credit: CBS)

“Find out how we can address this problem in living people as opposed to waiting until we’re dead,” he said.

Clark hopes the research not only helps him, but other players who suffer head injuries.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a million Americans suffer a mild traumatic brain injury every year. That includes teen athletes. Any research can be important in pinpointing future problems related to those injuries.