HAMPDEN, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- With the 2017 NFL season underway, there are many questions about concussion protocol in the wake of a new study released this week.
The Boston University study analyzed 202 brains of deceased football players of all skill levels. Of the 111 NFL players' brains, all but one showed signs of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease that affects people who undergo repeated hits to the head.
Mike DeVito, a former UMaine player, left the NFL after nine seasons when he suffered two major concussions in 2015. Despite that, DeVito planned to play another year, until his wife spoke up.
"I wasn't thinking about any of these injuries. How quickly I forgot that I wasn't sleeping at night. How quickly I forgot that I was knocked out on the field. I had made the decision to go back, not knowing that my wife didn't really want me to," said DeVito. "That's when she said, 'I've been quiet to this point, but I'm not going to watch you go through this again.'"
Michael Alosco, Ph.D., is one of the co-authors of the Boston University study.
"We're finding this in 177 out of 202 football players. You can't ignore the numbers," said Dr. Alosco.
Researchers studied football players of all skill levels, from pre-high school to the pros. They found that those who played at higher levels, like the NFL, showed more severe signs of CTE.
"It indicates that there are different amounts of levels of hitting your head that can result in CTE and we have to figure out how much is too much," said Alosco.
The researchers admitted that there are many limitations to the study, including that there was a bias because all the brains they studied were donated, mostly by families or people who believed there was an underlying problem.
He said the findings cannot be generalized to the larger population.
"There are likely other factors that interact with exposure to hitting your head a bunch that can increase your risk, and we do not know what those factors are," said Alosco.
Some of those factors could be genetics, or other head trauma unrelated to football.
The symptoms are still debilitating: impaired cognitive function, and changes in mood, including anxiety and depression can all result from CTE, according to doctors.
Some notable CTE deaths include former NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012. Although Seau was never diagnosed with a concussion during his 20-year career, the National Institute of Health examined his brain after his death and found he had CTE, a brain disease linked to blows to the head, which can result in depression and dementia.
"Often time those progress to the point where you can no longer do tasks such as paying bills or driving -- what we refer to as dementia. It's very sad and very depressing for families and the individual to go through," said Alosco.
Alosco is one of the scientists doing "in vivo" research, looking at ways to try to diagnose CTE while a person is still alive, using new neuroimaging techniques.
Researchers found that it was not always the hardest or most violent hits that caused CTE, but rather the repetitive, smaller blows, much like many linebackers, linemen, and others endure every day on the field.
"I thought as a lineman, I was safer from CTE," said DeVito. "It's one thing to get a knee injury to get an Achilles injury, a shoulder injury -- those things you can recover from. When you're messing with your brain, it's messing with who you are as a person."
He says this new study brings more awareness to the issue and that NFL players are not the only ones who are at risk.
"You're comparing -- what am I getting paid to how is this going to affect the rest of my life, my long term well-being. When those things start to even out, you start to really consider, is this worth it to go out there when we look at the fact that this is going to take a major toll on my body," said DeVito.
Now as high school football participation dwindles in Maine, coaches are teaching USA Football's "Heads Up" techniques, which instruct proper tackling.
"With the knowledge that we're getting from it, we've become a lot smarter in how we go about practicing and the prevention." said Deering High School head football coach Jason Jackson. "This game is only for a small span of your life. I want you to be able to enjoy that short span but I also want you to be able to enjoy your life. None of us are going pro."
But some of those who do, like DeVito, say their family takes priority over another year in the league.
"Those effects don't just affect me. Those effects affect my family -- and the longterm stuff, dealing with CTE and concussions, that's going to affect how I interact with them and that's going to affect their lives and I need to be here for as long as possible."