Funded by the Alzheimer’s Society, the PREVENT:RFC project forms part of the Sport United Against Dementia campaign.
The risk of brain injury in contact sport has been highlighted recently, with growing evidence that repeated head injury may lead to long-term brain damage.
Former Scotland player Roy Laidlaw revealed in October that he has dementia, while former England hooker Steve Thompson and ex-Wales international Alix Popham are among a group of ex-players exploring legal action for alleged negligence against the game’s authorities.
Some 700 volunteers are already involved in the UK and Ireland-wide PREVENT research project, under which they will be assessed via physical health checks, brain scans, memory assessments, lifestyle questionnaires and sample collections over a two-year period.
PREVENT:RFC, which is backed by an additional £250,000 from the Alzheimer’s Society, is one strand of the Sport United Against Dementia campaign, seeking to improve the lives of current and former players and fans.
It will be based in Edinburgh under the charge of principal investigator Professor Craig Ritchie, who will work alongside Professor Willie Stewart from Glasgow University.
The study will soon look to recruit further participants in Scotland.
Professor Stewart said: “It is vitally important we better understand the links between sports such as football and rugby and dementia, so we can better protect players from any risks they may face.
“Previous research led by our team at the University of Glasgow demonstrated the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease in former professional football players.
“I am delighted to be a part of this latest PREVENT study into professional rugby players, and the adjoining pilot looking at professional football players, so we can bring more insight to this important research area.”
Professor Craig Ritchie of Edinburgh University said: “The PREVENT Dementia Programme seeks to identify the earliest stages of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease at a point when they could be halted or even reversed. The addition of a cohort of former elite athletes to this programme will allow us to look for issues specific to that group with a view to minimising all players’ risk of developing dementia in the future.”