RADAR-AD researchers: Interview series “Behind-the-scenes”, part 2

In order to showcase the variety of work we do in RADAR-AD, we decided to dedicate the following news items to several RADAR-AD researchers. We talked to them about the work they do for the project, what excites and challenges them the most, especially at times of the present COVID-19 pandemic, and how they see the impact of our project for the wider field of Alzheimer’s research.

We first spoke to Ioulietta Lazarou, Psychologist - Clinical Research Associate in CERTH - ITI who holds a BSc in Psychology, MSc in Medical Research – Neurophysiology and MSc in Complex Systems & Brain Networks, and is a PhD candidate in Medical School – Neuroscience. We asked Ioulietta:

What is the focus of your work within the RADAR-AD project?
As a clinical researcher and psychologist, my main focus is on searching assistive technologies and sensor systems meaningful for monitoring patients’ behaviour and daily difficulties while seeking technologies that would benefit both clinicians as well as the patients. I contribute also in maintenance of the experiment with patients.

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?
I do really enjoy working in a multidisciplinary team consisting of experts coming from IT, engineers, clinicians, patient organizations and pharma companies. Everyone plays pivotal role in the project. I think the most exciting thing in RADAR-AD is putting different knowledge coming from different sectors in one jar, that is when “magic” happens.

What is challenging about your work?
Coming basically from the clinical field and working with IT, I like using and applying innovative and novel technologies for monitoring, assessing or classifying patients and setting the diagnosis, instead of using the traditional ones.

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of Alzheimer research?
The use of novel technologies gives us the opportunity to measure cognitive and functional decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease. In this way RADAR-AD sets the ground for exploring ways of assessing a wide range of symptoms that commonly occur in Alzheimer’s disease by using technology.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work?
I would not say that COVID-19 negatively impacted our work directly. In regards to effectiveness, COVID-19 has not impacted my work since research is not only conducting experiments, but also reporting scientific knowledge by writing publications, deliverables etc which can be successfully done at home. However, since our main research focus is elderly population, we had to postpone several assessments and physical visits and system installations in patients’ homes in order to protect them.

How have you adapted to the new circumstances created by the pandemic?
It is important to develop a simple plan for the day when working from home. Personally I followed strict daily program by having a formal start time and end time to my work day and trying to do creative things at home on the afternoon such as reading a book or exercising my cooking skills – I baked a lot of bread and pies actually during the pandemic. After all staying healthy and ensuring the safety of our family and our society was the ultimate goal of the quarantine and this thought helped me personally a lot to be adapted to the new situation.

How do you mitigate the (negative) impact of the crisis on your work?
Personally I don’t feel that the pandemic impacts a researcher’s work negatively. Me and my work colleagues stayed connected and kept our creativity and energy levels high. Alternatively, this crisis highlights that sensor technologies, telemedicine and supporting or monitoring people in need remotely by using novel technological solutions are urgent more than ever.

Next up is Meemansa Sood who is a PhD student at the Fraunhofer Institute for Algorithms and Scientific Computing (SCAI) at the Department of Bioinformatics. Meemansa’s work on RADAR-AD is focused on the creation of a longitudinal model, based on existing cohorts for the project. The goal of her work is to extract the functional and cognitive domains in these cohorts and, thereby, develop a longitudinal model. After this, the digital readouts collected in the project will be mapped to the longitudinal model which is being built. Furthermore, Meemansa wants to discover technology-enabled, quantitative and sensitive measures of functional decline in people with AD and to find sensible features for functional learnings.

Meemansa explains that, discovering functional features is a new experience for her, as she never dealt with functional domains in the past, when she was mostly involved with research on cognitive domains and brain imaging. Meemansa shares: “It is very interesting to see how activities of daily living of people living with Alzheimer’s disease correlate the progression of the disease. It is also enriching to learn about factors which affect the condition, such as the way of walking, sleeping patterns, managing appointments and pace of talking way and others.”

The digital health side of RADAR-AD is really exciting for Meemansa. She has observed in meetings and digital apps that the data is recorded in an interesting way and that it has the potential to help better assess the disease at an early time point.

Conversely, the biggest challenge facing Meemansa’s work on RADAR-AD is to obtain the data from the needed cohorts with functional domains. “We have the functional data from two cohorts but they are missing some important features. It is very challenging to get hold of the data which would help to validate our model in the future”, Meemansa continues.

On the significance of the research done in RADAR-AD Meemansa shares: “If we are to show how digital readouts are helping to assess early prognosis of Alzheimer’s disease, it would be really helpful for research, as well as doctors, to use these digital devices on a larger scale in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. These devices are easily available – almost everyone uses smartphones  nowadays, for example, and the use of digital technologies will only increase in future. Also, it would really help us to improve the assessment of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to that, the data collected would be more accurate, as devices can collect information over a continuous period of time, as opposed to conventionally used assessments that are currently used in the clinic.”

Fortunately, Meemansa’s work on RADAR-AD is not greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic since she is working with existing cohorts and only needs digital data.

Finally, we spoke to Bruna Consiglio who works as a EU Grant Administrator for Lygature, based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. In the RADAR-AD project she is assisting program managers, making sure that the communication between project partners goes as smooth as possible. She is the primary point of contact for reporting on the project. In that regard, Bruna takes care of the collection of reporting input and answers partners’ questions related to reporting.

In fact, Bruna enjoys her work on RADAR-AD and is happy to provide support to partners with their questions on the IMI reporting requirements. Furthermore, she values the team work within Lygature, because the team members help each other in terms of finding solutions together, giving guidance to one another and supporting each other’s decisions. Bruna thinks that the main challenge of her work on the project would be to collect all the information necessary in time before the deadline for submitting the reports.

In fact, she believes that there is a promising potential in using data obtained by remote measuring technology to measure diseases and finding a biomarkers which can have a huge contribution for future research on Alzheimer’s disease.

In terms of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Bruna’s work on RADAR-AD, she shares that administration still proceeds as usual. Since Bruna’s job is mainly related to fulfilling the requirements of the IMI, for now reporting and deadlines are still the same. “Content will change but the communication with IMI goes unchanged”, she asserts.

In the pre-COVID-19 times Bruna used to work from home one day a week and this goes well for her work on coordinating reports. She shares that she is kept up-to-date and well-informed on developments. She claims: “Our communication with the people in the project is mostly taking place online, and that can still continue.  I did miss the face-to-face interactions at the Annual Meeting though, which had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 situation.”

On the way she mitigated the negative impact of the crisis, Bruna shares: “The people in the project are now more used to the new situation. In the very beginning of the crisis, in the first few weeks, it was very challenging to obtain input form them on reports. To better deal with this, I had to become more flexible and understanding in this situation”