A 'world first' Scottish study that aims to prevent footballers developing dementia could offer hope for others at risk of the disease.

Researchers will study the brains of 150 ex-footballers aged between 40 and 59 to look for neurodegenerative changes which may be a precursor to the disease.

Professor Willie Stewart, whose ground-breaking established that former footballers had a five-fold risk of Alzheimer's Disease, is leading the project which has been backed with £1.3million funding from Fifa and the FA.

Further research by Prof Stewart and his team at the University of Glasgow found that the risk was highest amongst players who were most likely to head footballs, including defenders.

It led to the SFA banning headers in children under the age of 12.

This new BrainHOPE (health outcomes in professional elite athletes) study, will involve former players undergoing regular brain scans, memory checks and blood tests at two centres in Edinburgh and London.

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The results will then be compared with a general population control group who have undergone the same tests.

If changes are observed, players will be offered "the best available advice" on cutting their risk of dementia including reducing alcohol intake, taking regular exercise, eating a Mediterranean-based diet, managing stress and staying connected to others.

HeraldScotland:

"A study of this size alongside this really important control group is something that has not really been tried before,” said Prof Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist and Honorary Professor at the University of Glasgow, which is leading the project.

"There is a real prospect and expectation that as we gather more experience we might well be able to offer drugs specifically targeted to (pre)dementia associated problems, which might be drugs that have already been tried or are used in dementia, or novel drugs that haven’t yet been tried.

"We will be bringing former footballers into centres in Edinburgh and London for really deep testing of how their brains are working.

"We will do a bunch of memory tests, brain scanning at a deep research level and also some blood and general health tests to see if there are any early signs that could tell us if there is something going on.

READ MORE: Drug used to treat mental illness could help prevent dementia, study finds

"The important thing is that all the tests being done on footballers have also been done on the general population so we can fairly quickly compare the results and actually begin to get a picture of what the differences might be."

He said the aim was to catch people in mid-life, when experts believe the changes that lead to dementia are starting to take hold.

HeraldScotland:

"We want to see if we can spot the earliest possible signs of dementia because this is a group of individuals who we know are at very high risk," said Prof Stewart.

"If we see something in a footballer that is a sign of a problem developing, we can offer them the best advice that we have at the moment on physical activity, diet, alcohol, mental health and isolation - all the things that we know influence risk of dementia down the line."

He said half of the group who had developed changes would be given brain health advice and the other half would continue to be observed by experts from the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh and Imperial College London.

HeraldScotland:

Professor Stewart, who advises World Rugby, said it was significant that while the FA has long been supportive of research into the link between football and dementia, "we now have the global game involved."

He added: "It may be, after a year we will be able to say something is happening already but the most important data will probably come two to three years from now.

"The ultimate goal is to identify not just what the differences are in these ‘at risk’ individuals, but ways of reducing their risk too – which may also have application in wider, non sport dementia."

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Former World Cup-winning rugby player Steve Thompson has told how he wept when he recorded the audio version of his memoir, Unforgettable because "by the time the words were coming out of my mouth, they made no sense.” 

The 43-year-old told of his struggles after being diagnosed with early onset dementia and suspected CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) 

"Sadly we have seen the brains of former rugby players- aged 60 plus-  from the amateur era before the professional game took hold," said Prof Stewart.

"What we don't really know is what the risk of dementia is amongst these players.

"It's a bit like where we were with footballers four or five years ago where we were seeing the brains of footballers with head injury pathology but didn't know the risk yet. 

"When you look at football we now know there is a five-fold risk of Alzheimer's Disease. These are phenomenal risks.

"These are people it’s going to be incredibly important to work with to see if we can reduce their risk but also use their experiences to give us some clues as to how we can change the general population’s risk as well.”

Professor Craig Ritchie, BrainHOPE co-lead and Director of Edinburgh Dementia Prevention at the University of Edinburgh, said: "This is such an important study aligned to the main PREVENT Dementia Programme and solidifies an exceptionally strong academic collaboration between Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and Imperial College London. 

"This work will help us understand in detail the association between playing football and brain health and in doing so have a great impact on the wellbeing of current and retired players.”