Six highlights from Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2023

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By Joyce Yu | Thursday 13 April 2023

A few weeks ago, more than 500 researchers got together in person and online at the P&J Live, Aberdeen, for Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Conference 2023, the UK’s largest dementia research conference.

It’s impossible to capture all the exciting findings that were shared, and fruitful conversations that took place across the three days, but here are our six highlights.

 

 

1. Future leaders of dementia research

Researchers in the early stages of their careers are the powerhouse of our research programme and bring new ideas, new approaches and new collaborations to the field.

As our Executive Director of Research and Partnerships, Dr Susan Kohlhaas, said, “If we are to accelerate dementia research and deliver life-changing treatments for people living with the condition, we must continue to back early career researchers. Doing so is vital to make sure we have the best dementia research leaders of tomorrow and that we can continue to make research breakthroughs possible.”

To create a space for early career researchers to network and share knowledge, we dedicated an entire day at the start of the conference to them. We heard from PhD students presenting their work and arranged panel discussions on different aspects of career development for researchers just starting off in the dementia field.

The conference also provided an opportunity to celebrate excellence from researchers at all stages of their careers. PhD student Ludmilla Kucikova took home the Laura Pulford Prize for the best PhD talk at the Early Careers Day. Watch this video of her explaining her research, which focuses on changes in brain activity that may precede Alzheimer’s.

 

 

We also heard from the winners of the prestigious David Hague Early Career Investigator of the Year award, and the Jean Corsan Prize. It was fantastic to see talented young researchers taking on our greatest medical challenge, producing high-quality research and sharing their findings on such an important platform. Read more about the prize winners.

 

Caroline van den Brul, Trustee of the charity, presenting the David Hague Early Career Investigator of the Year Award to Dr Soyon Hong.

 

2. Uncovering the role of microglia, our brain’s immune cells

Microglia are the resident immune cells in our brains. They act as the first responders to get rid of cell debris and other harmful substances, such as the amyloid protein clumps seen in Alzheimer’s disease. However, more and more recent studies have revealed that microglia may play a more important role in the early stages of the disease than previously thought.

In the “Microglia in dementia: friend or foe” session, we heard from four researchers presenting their latest findings on these cells, and how their presence in the brain can be a double-edged sword in dementia. They normally help to protect the brain but go awry and cause damage in diseases like Alzheimer’s. By understanding how microglia work and what happens to them during disease progression, scientists may be able to develop potential treatments for dementia.

One of the speakers in this session was Alzheimer’s Research UK-funded PhD student Emma Garland, “It’s very exciting to present my work at such a large conference and to share what I have found so far. It has been great to meet with so many passionate dementia researchers who are all part of the effort to transform lives.” Read about her work here.

 

3. Inclusivity and research culture in the dementia field

For the first time, we included a session in the main hall that focused on something other than the latest scientific findings. Instead, we drew together an expert panel to discuss how to create a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive research culture in the dementia field.

We covered this this panel discussion in depth in a separate post (which you can read here), to expand on  why Alzheimer’s Research UK believes that these important conversations must continue to create a more supportive scientific community, in turn improving the quality of research.

 

Panellists (from left to right): Ms Tomi Akingbade, Dr Rosalind Attenborough, Dr Dayne Beccano-Kelly and Prof Tara Spires-Jones, chaired by Dr Jorge Gomez-Magenti

 

4. What factors affect dementia risk?

In a session dedicated to dementia risk, several researchers presented their work investigating links between dementia and factors such as air and noise pollution, obesity, and traumatic brain injury. A highlight was Dr Brian Allman (from the University of Western Ontario), who presented his team’s tentative finding, in mice, that mild noise exposure earlier in adulthood can have long-lasting effects on brain function later in life.

Studies like these presented at the Conference are good for highlighting links, and we need to understand more about why and how these conditions and exposures could affect dementia risk. With this knowledge, researchers can then design and test ways to try to reduce people’s risk of developing dementia at various points of their life.

Sadly, there’s no sure-fire way to prevent dementia yet, as some of the things that affect our risk, including our age and our genes, we can’t change. But the good news is, just as we can protect other areas of our health, we can take steps to keep our brains healthy and help reduce our risk of developing dementia in later life. Check out our Think Brain Health Check-in tool to learn more about the things that shape your brain health and get personalised guidance that could help reduce your dementia risk.

 

5. Engaging the public about dementia research

 Our conference takes place in a different city each year, and bringing hundreds of researchers to the area. So its an invaluable opportunity for us to engage with the local community.  Part of our purpose is to raise awareness of dementia and the power of research to bring life-changing treatments to people with the condition.

The weekend before the conference, we held our “Science in the Shops” event at Union Square, Aberdeen. This was a free, family-friendly event featuring hands-on activities, crafts, and interactive technology. Local researchers joined us to shine a light on the workings of the brain and showcase the pioneering dementia research in Aberdeen and across Scotland.

And during the conference, the first time ever, we hosted a Twitch live stream, allowing us to chat to researchers about their work and why they got into dementia research. Some even jumped onto the static bike while chatting to us! It was a great success, raising almost £4000 from online and offline donations.

 

Dr Mike Daniels on the Twitch live stream, chatting about his research while cycling to fundraise for ARUK

 

6. Stories from people affected by dementia

Alzheimer’s Research UK and all the dementia researchers at the conference share the same goal of bringing real impact to people living with dementia. We were fortunate to hear the personal stories from two of our inspiring supporters.

On the Early Career Day, we heard from Cath Baxter, who has fundraised in incredible amount for our charity since her mum was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia. Then to open the first day of the Research Conference, supporter Olive Munro recounted her diagnosis with vascular dementia in 2017, and how she walked the 780km Camino de Santiago to fundraise for the charity. Despite her diagnosis she is determined to do what she can to support dementia research while she is still able.

Speaking to the researchers, Olive said, “Alzheimer’s Research UK and the research you do is extremely important for the people and their families who have dementia now, and very much more important for the people who might get dementia in the future. Your work won’t help me, but please keep at it and thank you for the future generations as I know you will find an answer one day.”

 

ARUK Supporter Olive Munro, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia, spoke to an audience of dementia researchers about her experience and how she has hope for her grandchildren and future generations.

 

If you would like to hear from our scientists, check out the Lab Notes series, our free, online engagement events where you can find out about the life-changing dementia research taking place across the UK.

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Joyce Yu