The PREVENT Dementia annual conference in London brought together participants, the public and researchers from across the UK and Ireland to share the latest developments within the research programme. A range of fantastic speakers reviewed progress of the study so far, presented new analyses and results beginning to emerge form the project and discussed ambitious new plans for the future vision of PREVENT and its continued growth.
The first speaker of the evening was Dr Dennis Chan from the University of Cambridge. Dr Chan’s research focuses on specific areas of the brain involved in spatial navigation and memory. These are thought to be some of the very earliest brain regions to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. He is particularly interested in developing new and inventive ways of testing spatial navigation skills and was a key member of the team which developed the ‘Four Mountains Task’ currently being used in PREVENT. In his talk, he discussed recently published data from the PREVENT cohort investigating performance on specific navigation tasks and how this may relate to dementia risk in later life. The slides from Dr Chan’s presentation can be viewed here.
Researchers are always searching for ways to make their assessments more closely resemble ‘real-life’ and Dennis spoke of his group’s recent progress in developing inventive new navigation tasks using virtual reality technology. These tasks will be further tested in a new study which will be offered to some PREVENT participants. The study will help us investigate if tests set in virtual reality could have a key role to play in detecting the earliest problems in navigating the space around us. This in turn could teach us about the activity of crucial brain regions that may show changes early in the Alzheimer’s process.
In the time since the last PREVENT conference, the study has gained an additional research site as Trinity College Dublin opened the door to participation in Ireland. Dublin Principal Investigator Prof Brian Lawlor updated the audience on progress with PREVENT’s newest site. His presentation, titled ‘A Framework of Hope’ (slides available here), spoke of the reasons to take a positive view of the many achievements to date and the future direction of both the PREVENT project and the wider brain health movement.
Brian drew upon powerful personal accounts of lived experience with dementia and how these can serve to fuel hope for future advances in the areas of treatment and research. He highlighted how the power of hope can come from the motivation it evokes to take action and make a difference for future generations. Desire to get involved is certainly in no short supply in Dublin as Brian described how the site had been privileged to receive overwhelming public interest in the short time the study has been running, including being contacted by over 600 willing volunteers within the first 2 days of study recruitment!
The next speaker was the Oxford site PREVENT Principal Investigator Dr Ivan Koychev presenting the topic of ‘The Power of Digital Technology to Detect Preclinical Dementia’ (slides here).
As the power of mobile technology continues to develop at lightning speed, clever applications of these tools could reduce the amount of assessments that need to be carried out within the walls of a research centre. The ability to capture more information from individuals at home could not only drive down the cost of doing research but importantly also improve access and widen opportunities to take part.
Ivan has collected some initial data from a group of PREVENT participants and found that their performance on specific mobile phone-based tasks was comparable to their scores on a more conventional thinking task (COGNITO) which was completed by participants at the research unit. This demonstrates that these mobile phone tasks could be used to produce reliable valid results. In addition these technologies could allow us to collect data which isn’t possible to collect in a research unit setting and in real time. Current research largely relies on participants reporting themselves how they manage in day to day tasks and how much time they spend on these. By tracking these activities more objectively through wearable devices Ivan described how we may be able to harness more accurate measurements of daily living. Whether designed interventions (for example drugs) impact on the level of engagement in these activities could have a crucial role to play in deciding whether future treatments are working.
PREVENT Chief Investigator Prof Craig Ritchie closed the conference with a reflection on study achievements so far and an exciting glimpse of the directions the project is heading in the near future. Craig’s presentation (available here) updated the audience on scientific findings already released from the study as well as the many research questions currently being investigated using PREVENT participant data.
Focus then switched to the ambitions of PREVENT moving forwards. Including plans to attract funding for 5 and 10 year follow up visits as well as exciting new collaborations PREVENT is striking up to advance the project on an international scale. Craig concluded the evening by placing PREVENT within a global context, as one of a collection of key initiatives all pulling together to produce the evidence needed to shift the way we think about, intervene, and ultimately prevent dementia.
As Prof Lawlor emphasised in his talk, the PREVENT Dementia Programme is in a unique position to drive change, fuelled by the extraordinary motivation and dedication of its participants. The study is indebted to everyone who has contributed so much energy to our research so far. As the research grows, its power to initiate change increases and with the amazing momentum the study has now built up we look forward with anticipation to all that the next 12 months bring.