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Former England rugby players to help major study into effects of the game on brain health

Former England international rugby players are set to be recruited for the next phase of a major study examining the possible long-term effects of the game on brain health.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is working with the Rugby Football Union, together with researchers from Queen Mary University of London, The Institute of Occupational Medicine, University College London and Oxford University, to study the possible link between a history of concussion and neurodegenerative disease in former rugby players. The Drake Foundation has committed over £450,000 to funding the research.

The project aims to provide a greater amount of information on the potential medium and long-term neurocognitive risks of playing rugby than is currently available from other studies.

This will follow on from a study conducted in the past 18 months by researchers from the Oxford Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, which included a survey of approximately 300 former England players as well as Oxford and Cambridge University players. Detailed information was collected on their playing history, past injuries including concussions sustained during their career, and their current musculoskeletal and general health.

The new study is designed to assess the potential association between a history of concussion and general and neurological health, and will involve approximately 200 participants over the age of 50 who participated in the previous study.

The more in-depth research will gather additional data on the retired players' quality of life and social circumstances, with an extensive set of tests capturing physical and cognitive capabilities and a neurological clinical examination. There will also be face-to-face assessments as well as blood and urine samples taken for future analysis.

The same tests and procedures will be used in a separate ongoing 1946 Birth Cohort Study which will provide a general population comparison.

There is growing evidence on the possible increased risks of neurodegenerative diseases including Dementia, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease (PD), and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former contact sport athletes.

Different sports expose players to different types of injuries and while several studies have suggested an increased risk of various neurological disorders, this has not yet been established.

Professor Neil Pearce from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine who is leading the study 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. We are delighted to work with the RFU in recruiting former players for the study, and are pleased that the Drake Foundation is funding this important area of research."

James Drake, Chairman of The Drake Foundation, said: "In funding this research, The Drake Foundation is enabling an important step forwards in our understanding of the potential long-term health outcomes of playing sport at a high level. It is fantastic that former rugby players are willing to dedicate their time to this study as their efforts will help the sport look at how to better manage both the short and long-term risks of injury."

Simon Kemp Chief Medical Officer at the RFU said: "The RFU has worked extremely hard to increase the education of those involved in the game about concussion and to improve the management of the risk of the injury based on the evidence available. The next step for us a union and as a sport is progress beyond delivering 'recognise, remove, recover and return' and try to understand more about the possible longer-term effects on the health of the brain. We welcome the support from the Drake Foundation, the academic institutions involved in the project and the former players who will take part in the study."

Former England International Rob Andrew who took part in the first phase of the research, said: "As a former professional rugby player I believe it is really important that we all understand the potential long-term health outcomes from playing the sport at a high level.

"This study will provide an insight into the health of former players, which can only be a good thing in terms of players being more informed, but also helping the sport look at how to manage both the short and long-term risks associated with injury."