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Understanding Dementia 2020

Dementia research in the face of COVID-19

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Dr Susan Kohlhaas

Director of Research, Alzheimer’s Research UK

As we rang in the New Year, few could have predicted just how tumultuous 2020 would turn out to be. But, nine months on, almost every walk of life has been impacted by COVID-19, causing global turmoil for billions.

For scientists searching for life-changing dementia treatments, the pandemic has brought new ways of working – both at home, and now as lockdown eases, back in the lab.

Dementia researchers are hugely innovative, and they quickly pivoted to keep their work moving when labs closed. While new experiments had to be put on hold, teams focused on collaborating virtually, analysing their data, writing up their findings and designing future experiments.

A return to the lab?

At the time of writing, some restrictions are lifting and many labs have now re-opened. With social distancing measures in place, it’s not yet a return to normal: limited space means many researchers may be working in shifts, dividing their time between home and the lab, and allowing extra time for experiments to factor in rigorous cleaning of shared equipment.

Work will necessarily be slower, but at Alzheimer’s Research UK, we’re hearing from scientists across the country who are delighted to be back at their lab benches.

Many tests, such as brain scans, cannot be carried out remotely, and there will be inevitable gaps in data for these studies.

For clinical studies, it’s been a mixed picture. As the UK went into lockdown, some trials and observational studies paused completely due to safety concerns relating to COVID-19, and many clinical researchers were called on to support to frontline healthcare delivery.

Others were able to continue, albeit with constraints. In some cases, it’s been possible to assess study participants from a distance using video calls, and for some clinical trials, this has allowed volunteers to spend less time at in-person appointments, now reserved for administering trial treatments. But many tests, such as brain scans, cannot be carried out remotely, and there will be inevitable gaps in data for these studies.

The need to regain momentum

While COVID-19 has caused major setbacks for research, it has also hit people with dementia hard. Over a quarter of people who’ve died in England and Wales from COVID-19 also had dementia, and there are fears that, for many people living with dementia, their rate of decline has been accelerated by social distancing measures.

All of this serves to highlight the urgent need for research to deliver breakthroughs that could protect people from further devastation. Yet, sadly, Alzheimer’s Research UK, like many charities, is predicting a 45% drop in income as a result of the pandemic, meaning we are unable to fund as much research as we’d hoped.

It’s clear that dementia researchers have the tenacity and inventiveness to find solutions to the challenges that this pandemic has thrown up. But with fewer opportunities for talented scientists to explore new ideas that could lead to the next breakthrough, it’s also clear that now more than ever, dementia research needs our support. With the right backing, we can help that research regain momentum – and for people with dementia and their families, we must do nothing less.

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