Six take homes from the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference

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By Fiona Calvert | Tuesday 06 April 2021

The onset of spring means not only lighter and longer days but also the annual Alzheimer’s Research UK Research Conference, which in 2021 was supported by Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation.

The past 12 months have been incredibly challenging for dementia research. While work in labs has been paused or scaled back at points during the pandemic, in-person research conferences have had to stop altogether.

Conferences are a critical but often overlooked part of science and it is vital that dementia researchers have these opportunities to forge collaborations, exchange new ideas with their colleagues and hear about exciting new developments from the field.

Although we couldn’t meet in person this year, our team worked hard to recreate the event virtually and bring together dementia researchers from all around the world.

 

1) Going virtual was a little different but still great!

We had over 500 registrations for our conference this year, from more than 100 different companies, research organisations and universities.

Our selection of speakers shared their most recent research findings in different sessions and over 100 scientists presented their findings in the form of posters. The poster platform had over 4,000 page views and fostered many discussions.

We know that conferences are a vital place for our researchers to connect with each other and learn from other experts. Our researchers asked over 250 questions throughout the conference and 160 scientists formally connected with each other.

A key advantage of the virtual format is that the content is available for another month so researchers can catch up on sessions they might have missed and continue to connect. One week after the conference, the on-demand function had already been accessed more than 1,000 times.

 

2) Early Career Researchers inspire us about the future of dementia research

Our conference also gives us a chance to hear from Early Career Researchers at the cutting edge of dementia science.

We heard from the winners of our David Hague Early Career Investigator award. Dr Sophie Bradley shared her work on a specific drug target for Alzheimer’s disease and Prof Renzo Mancuso highlighted his groundbreaking stem cell research. The conference also gave Jean Corsan Prize winner Emma Jones a platform to present her work into the genetics of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Pictures of early career researchers

Prizes were also awarded to scientists who presented outstanding work at the conference:

  • The Laura Pulford Prize – Jade Taylor, for her presentation about changes in blood flow in the brain
  • The Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation Communications Prize – Karina Vitanova, for her talk on the changes that happen at communication points between nerve cells
  • The Sir Malcolm Walker Award – Dr Esme Wood for her poster presentation about safer walking technology
  • The Lady Walker Award – Dr Danielle Newby following her poster presentation about anti-inflammatory drugs and dementia risk.

 

3) An update on our EDoN initiative

The conference also gave us the opportunity to update the dementia research community with the latest on our global research programme – Early Detection of Neurodegenerative diseases (EDoN).

EDoN is an ambitious £67m partnership initiative, setting out to explore whether patterns in a person’s digital data could pick up the early stages of a disease like Alzheimer’s.

EDoN launched last year but already, we’ve brought together 57 experts across 37 universities, research projects and technology companies across the UK, Europe and North America. The project is funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, but also with generous donations from funders including Bill Gates and Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation.

edon infographic

 

4) Accelerating treatment trials

One highlight for many of us watching was a panel discussion involving leading experts in clinical trials. The speakers set out how can we improve these vital studies in order to get new treatments into the hands of people with dementia as quickly as possible. The whole conference was able to quiz these experts, discuss how the field can work to improve clinical trials and learn from the successes of the fast-paced COVID vaccination trials.

screenshot of video conference
 

5) Despite a difficult year, dementia researchers are still making breakthroughs possible

The Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference brings together dementia researchers from around the world to share their latest findings and 2021 was no different. We heard from leaders in drug discovery and some interesting views on the possible link between viruses, inflammation and the risk of dementia.

Researchers also presented their work into the connection between viral infections and dementia, including Prof Markus Glatzel and Dr Dervis Salih who shared their latest research into the impact of COVID-19 on the brain. These studies are in the very early stages and research is ongoing to understand how COVID-19 affects the brain.

Prof Jason Warren spoke at the conference about his experiments investigating the “cocktail party effect” and how it connects hearing loss and dementia. The cocktail party effect is the challenge people have focusing on a single speaker or conversation in a noisy environment. For example, most people talking to a friend at a bustling cocktail party are able to listen to and understand what they are talking about – and ignore what other people nearby are saying. This becomes increasingly difficult for many people with Alzheimer’s disease.

 

6) Virtual conferences mean some unique listening spots (and company)!

Although we really missed seeing all our researchers in person, it was lovely to see all the places that scientists listened in from and the unexpected viewers that joined them!

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Dr Jill Fowler (and her dog Lola) settle in to listen to the research talks. Dr Sarah Ryan brightens her conference listening spot with spring flowers. Dr Lauren Walker and Dr Cara Croft joined us while finishing up some experiments! Prof Selina Wray’s kitten Billy awaits a session of research talks!

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About the author

Fiona Calvert