Researchers at four universities and research institutes on Tuesday were awarded almost $16 million to find a way to diagnose, while victims are alive, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits in contact sports.
The National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke issued the seven-year grant as part of a long-term study of brain disease in former N.F.L. and college football players, many of whom sustained multiple concussions on the field.
For years, researchers have been able to diagnose C.T.E. only by examining the brains of players who died and whose families agreed to donate the organ, a limitation that has slowed efforts to determine who is susceptible to having the disease.
The new study aims to develop ways to spot the disease in the living and figure out why certain players get it and others do not. A more comprehensive understanding of the disease, the researchers said, may lead to ways to prevent it.
“There are so many critical unanswered questions about C.T.E.,” Robert Stern, the lead principal investigator and a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a statement. “We are optimistic that this project will lead to many of these answers, by developing accurate methods of detecting and diagnosing C.T.E. during life, and by examining genetic and other risk factors for this disease.”
Despite the implications that the research may have on football players and the N.F.L., the league did not help pay for the grant. In 2012, the N.F.L. pledged $30 million to the N.I.H. to pay for research on C.T.E. and other issues related to head trauma, and said it would not have any veto power over how the money was used.
But the grant did not come from that pool of money. The N.I.H. had asked to use some of it, but after encountering delays with the foundation administering the money, it decided to finance the grant with other funds, said a person familiar with the process but who spoke on condition of anonymity because the researchers’ statement is the official comment.
In its own statement, the N.I.H. directed questions about the financing of the study to the N.F.L., which it credited with supporting eight other studies related to brain injuries.
“We expect that the N.F.L. will fund future studies to help improve player safety and health, on and off the field,’’ the statement said.
ESPN reported Tuesday that the N.F.L. did not want its money used for the research because researchers from Boston University, who have been critical of the league and the way it has handled concussions in players, were involved. The report said the N.F.L. managed to influence the foundation administering the funds.
In response to ESPN, a spokesman for the league, Brian McCarthy, said that it did not “pull funding” from the study, that “the N.I.H. makes all funding decisions” and that the N.F.L. has no “veto power” over its $30 million grant to the N.I.H.
He declined to say why the N.F.L. was not contributing money to the grant announced Tuesday.
Dr. Stern declined to comment on the funding issue.
The inability of doctors to be able to diagnose C.T.E. in living patients has been in the forefront of a debate over a settlement between the N.F.L. and all retired players.
The deal, which is being appealed, pays up to $4 million to former players found with C.T.E. who died from 2006 to April 2015, when the deal was approved by a district court judge. During an appeals hearing in November, objectors to the settlement said that the cutoff date was arbitrary and that the deal should cover the possibility that doctors find a way to detect the disease in living patients.
The new study involves about 50 researchers from 17 research institutions including the University of Arizona, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute, Boston University, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic.