Digital Innovation & Data Science for Dementia and Longevity Research Event – Top 5 takeaways
Event hosted by the Deep Dementia Phenotyping (DEMON) Network and Ageing Research at King’s (ARK)
Blog written by Chris Albertyn, King’s College London DEMON Network Regional Lead & ARK Project Manager
On Thursday 26th November 2020, the Deep Dementia Phenotyping (DEMON) Network and Ageing Research at King’s (ARK) co-hosted a launch event highlighting the crossover between dementia and longevity research*. In particular, the focus was on the nascent impact of digital technology, such as monitoring healthy ageing through apps and wearables, and data science approaches to human ‘omics data & biomarkers. I was delighted to chaperone the event & learn about the wonderful work the speakers were doing. In my personal opinion, I felt my top 5 takeaways were:
1. Longevity & Dementia research are ‘two sides of the same coin’.
It seems to me that longevity research is predominantly about extending ‘health span’ by promoting personal, social and economic behaviours, at an individual and community level, that broadly increase independence & resilience to age-related adversity. Whereas dementia research identifies ‘risks’ and ‘causes’ of cognitive decline, and how we can optimally mitigate and reduce these to avoid or stall its progression. Longevity also seems to take a wider holistic approach, for example including financial, political & consumer behaviour in addition to health outcomes. Whereas dementia research is more focused on a biopsychosocial model of ageing. An alliance between these two streams of work is highly complementary, and an exciting prospect for future collaborations.
2. The ‘earlier the better’.
Both longevity & dementia research accept that we must take a full lifespan approach – ageing starts with your parents. This is the same for promoting healthy ageing and preventing decline. Collecting rich longitudinal data, including genetic information, is exceptionally valuable in that it affords us the opportunity to identify key inflection points in individual & population ageing. Prof Llewellyn mentions at the very beginning, that a major issue with the dementia diseases clinical trials is that we’re often too far along the patient’s clinical progression. So we need to target pathology earlier. More accessible & less invasive markers, such as blood-based biomarkers introduced by Dr Petra Proitsi, and digital technologies described by Dr Claire Steves & Dr Andrew Owens will provide critical data to allow us to do this.
3. Digital technology allows us to reach much farther & wider than ever.
Smartphones, apps, wearables, augmented reality software and home-based monitoring sensors. All of these were mentioned in the event, and offer exciting promise for researchers to reach a significantly higher proportion of the population than ever before. Typically, participants for dementia studies have mostly been recruited at the point of clinical assessment (or after). However, by using digital technologies we can now access participants, without geographical restriction, at any point in their lives as long as they have access to the technology & wi-fi. To quote Dr Andrew Owens: “digital biomarkers produced by Remote measurement technologies (RMTs) could move us away from a ‘diagnose & treat’ to a ‘predict & pre-empt’ model of care”. While not as detailed as a clinical examination, we can obtain continuous and objective data such as physical activity/gait, sleep, vital signs (heart rate etc), financial transactions, online behaviour, and self-administered cognitive & lifestyle assessments. Partnered with healthcare data, this is an incredibly rich and exciting resource not only for researchers, but also clinical practitioners!
4. Data science & artificial intelligence techniques are exciting & progressive, but we must be cautious.
Dr Cassandra Coburn raises a pertinent point, applied data science is hugely valuable & exciting, but this must be tempered with appropriate caution. The stakes are just too high to be complacent. It still has many limitations, such as ensuring reproducibility, data security & validity, including contextual information, and interest from industry pushing unconscious incentives potentially compromising scientific integrity. The last point is particularly true in the longevity research space (although not remiss in dementia research either) where I think researchers need to remain vigilant for an encroachment of industry bias or influence. There is significant investment in healthy ageing, but not always appropriately targeted. The institutional processes determining academic integrity in research must be robust to ensure scientific and ethical rigor is not compromised. It is easy to be lured in by the talk of an ‘AI summer’, but I personally think it’s much too early for that…we’re still learning our way, the frost is melting and not everything is turning into flowers, and therefore we’re closer to an ‘AI spring’.
5. Our strongest asset resulting in most immediate impact – collaboration!
Finally, what seemed most clear to me, and echoed by the responses of panel members in the final few minutes of the discussion, is that our best chance of immediate impact are facilitating diverse and extensive collaborative relationships. This is born out particularly with Dr Claire Steves example of the ‘COVID collaborative’: an initiative led by junior doctors in over 55 hospitals in 12 countries to recruit over 4 million people to the COVID symptom tracker app! In a broader context, ARK brings together such a wealth of expertise across disciplines to create the Longevity AI Consortium which will have impact across the international ageing society! And finally, with the DEMON network now having over 700 members of different expertise across 32 countries, there is a firm foundation for innovative dementia research to take root and thrive! For example, I for one am very excited about cross-over explorations of digital technology and biomarkers in dementia research. Something that DEMON can easily facilitate through its network of bespoke working groups. But more than that, what is really highlighted is that we have only just scratched the surface. There is so much more to do and explore – come join us!
The Deep Dementia Phenotyping (DEMON) Network:
Ageing Research at King’s (ARK)
* for a list of the speakers & titles, please see: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/events/digital-innovation-data-science-for-dementia-and-longevity-research