Former England internationals will be involved in a major new study looking at the potential effects of concussion on brain health.
The study will involve approximately 200 former players over the age of 50 and will include a number of former England internationals, the Rugby Football Union has announced.
It will put the participants through a number of different tests to assess their neurological health and the data will be compared against a separate concurrent study conducting the same tests on the general population. The participants for the rugby-related programme will be drawn from a previous study which involved around 300 players who either represented England or Oxford or Cambridge universities.
The RFU says in a statement that "evidence is accumulating" 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, and that the purpose of the study is to see whether any link between these conditions and rugby union-related head trauma can be further established.
England captain Dylan Hartley admitted last week that another concussion could end his career.
The hooker was knocked unconscious during the RBS 6 Nations match against France on March 19, where England sealed the Grand Slam, and only returned to action with his club Northampton on May 7.
''If I got another lay-off now, I'd be worried," he said. "I'd probably start looking at other careers or maybe a long lay-off. Maybe I'll look at my tackling technique too!'' Hartley said.
''I'd have to ask a specialist. Three (concussions) in one season would warrant a bit of time off and I would probably take that anyway -- take a step back and have a minute."
Officials from the NFL acknowledged a link between American football-related head trauma and CTE in March, and the RFU's chief medical officer Simon Kemp believes more research is needed in rugby union to see if the same is true of his sport.
"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," Kemp said.
"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."
The study will be conducted by academics from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, the Institute of Occupational Medicine and University College London and Oxford University.
The Drake Foundation, a body established to improve measures for participant safety in contact sports by furthering research for sports-related concussion, is contributing £450,000 of funding to the study.
Professor Neil Pearce from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who will lead 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."
The RFU operates a 'return to play' protocol which is designed to carefully manage head traumas suffered by players at all levels of the game.