Former England international rugby players are set to participate in a major new study looking at the long-term effects of the game on neurological health.
As announced by the Rugby Football Union on Thursday morning, the RFU have teamed up with leading academics from several major institutes and universities to examine the link between a history of concussion and neurodegenerative disease in later life. The Drake Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation committed to funding research on concussion in sport, has committed £450,000 of funding to the project.
The study will survey around 200 players over the age of 50, who will undergo a series of tests to assess their neurological health. The resulting data will then be compared against a separate, concurrent study conducting the same tests on the general population.
The RFU have said in their statement that "evidence is accumulating on the possible increased risks of neurodegenerative diseases" linked to contact sport, including dementia, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease (PD) and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This latest study is intended to provide evidenced-based, high-quality research collated from a large group of players, and so establish whether a clear link can be found between rugby and the development of neurological disorders.
Professor Neil Pearce, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, will lead the study. He said: "Evidence is accumulating on the possible long-term health risks in former contact sport athletes. However, each sport is different and there is currently little evidence from rugby players.
"This study will start to fill this gap, and will allow us to assess whether there are long-term health problems and what their causes may be."
England captain Dylan Hartley admitted last week that another concussion could effectively end his career. Having been knocked out during England's Six Nations clash with France, he said: "If I got another lay-off now, I'd be worried. I'd probably start looking at other careers or maybe a long lay-off."
With the link between various competitive sports and neurological diseases currently under the spotlight, the RFU's study will come as welcome news to former players and current professionals alike. The FA have bowed to public pressure and agreed to lead a study into brain disease among former footballers this week, while officials from the NFL acknowledged a connection between American football-related head trauma and CTE in March.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.