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Quantifying ageing related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - COGDEC (Quantifying ageing related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-09-30

The aim of the COGDEC project is to transfer state-of the art brain imaging methods from internationally renowned researchers from KU Leuven and the Medical University of Graz (MUG) to researchers at the University of Ljubljana (UL), in order to enable further cooperation and development of advanced techniques and tools to study cognitive decline at UL. Knowledge transfer was achieved with trainings at KU Leuven and MUG, Summer, and Winter schools for early-stage researchers (ESRs) at UL, and the preparation of national and international grant proposals, including joint PhDs.
The COGDEC project officially started on October 2019 and, in the first few months, the organizational structure and decision-making mechanisms between partners were successfully implemented. Communication channels were established, including web page, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube account, and administrative staff was selected and employed. In the 23 months of the COGDEC project (October 2019 – August 2021), partners successfully organized and delivered 44 weeks of intensive training at the MUG and KU Leuven. In spring 2020 activities related to trainings at MUG and KU Leuven started. However, as of March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic started to hinder the ongoing activities, especially the training visits at APs. Between March 2020 and August 2021 a number of national and institutional restrictions in Austria, Belgium and Slovenia heavily influenced the project’s implementation. To ensure the project’s progression COGDEC Consortium started implementing online activities, wherever possible, i.e. online delivery of Early-Stage Researchers’ Schools and partly online training for UL’s trainers.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic related challenges, altogether 5 UL researchers successfully completed 44 weeks of training at MUG and KU Leuven, while 8 UL researchers had to postpone and/or cancel scheduled trainings at APs. UL, together with both advanced partners (APs), organized and delivered two online Early-Stage Researchers’ trainings (ESRs) in Ljubljana in June 2020 and December 2020, with 28 young researchers attending 5-days training on EEG/MRI techniques. As the result of trainings delivered in these 23 months, project partners submitted 4 joint research papers, with 3 of them being accepted for publication, and one still pending. Research articles were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and in Frontiers in Public Health. In 2021 COGDEC partners started preparing several joint grant proposals and successfully finalized an agreement on Joint PhDs between KU Leuven and UL, with 3 students being admitted to this program in 2021. The Consortium established a project webpage and social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), and increased national recognition of UL in Slovenia as a provider of state-of-the art educational formats in brain imaging methods.

MUG prepared and implemented training focused on selected MRI related topics – relaxometry, diffusion tensor imaging, and quantitative susceptibility mapping – in the field of advanced quantitative MRI. Two UL researchers completed the training on advanced level, and one completed the training partially. COGDEC training activities significantly contributed to the implementation of other projects, resulting in a joint Digital poster being presented at ISMRM Conference 2021. During the preparation/implementation phases of COGDEC project, MUG and UL submitted two joint projects to national research agencies - Slovenian Research Agency and Austrian Science Fund, with one being accepted and one still being under review, and another joint project application will be submitted in Autumn 2021.
UL researchers learnt at KU Leuven how to pre-process raw EEG signals, how to extract ERPs from it, and how to do different types of statistical analyses of EEG signals, including a statistical comparison of different experimental groups in time-frequency domain and how to deal with the multiple comparison problem. Two UL researchers completed 12- and 6-weeks of training, respectively. One UL researcher collaborated in an ongoing research activity at KU Leuven and was later included in the preparation of an article, published in July 2021 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. This UL researcher was also involved in the preparation of an article that was submitted to the Journal of Neural Engineering. After 3-weeks training in 2021 the second UL researcher received an offer for a full-time PhD position at KU Leuven, starting 1 November 2021.

Two online trainings for ESRs were organized at UL in 2020, Summer School (22-25/06/2020) and Winter School (14-18/12/2020). The Summer School covered the basics in EEG and MRI imaging and provided participants with important information on relevant research activities in the field of cognitive decline. In the Winter School the learning experience was upgraded, providing the participants with hands-on training with Matlab software. All together 28 students with different background (medicine, psychology, mathematics, cognitive science, etc.) attended and 22 of them completed the training. Both Schools were registered as an elective course in the Biomedicine PhD study program at UL.

The list of potential research topics was agreed among UL, MUG and KU Leuven. In June 2021 the list of 6 Joint PhD topics between KU Leuven and UL was published on the project’s webpage and distributed to research staff of UL’s faculties: Effects of confounds on EEG-based biomarkers of mild cognitive decline; Studying cognitive reserve with EEG in patients with MCI; Neural networks to uncover hidden relations in cognitive decline-related EEG data; Functional connectivity brain networks as a biomarker of cognitive impairment; Block Term Tensor Regression with source reconstructed EEG to investigate finger dexterity; EEG-based biomarkers of early MCI.

KU Leuven and UL submitted in October 2021 a grant application together with 3 other EU partners to the HORIZON-EIC-2021-PATHFINDER call. During the summer of 2021, MUG and UL started working on a new joint project that focuses on the analysis of magnetization transfer in the brain of patients suffering from multiple sclerosis.
The COGDEC project aims to foster the further development of advanced brain imaging methods to study cognitive decline at UL and to consolidate the newly formed research and technology network between UL, KU Leuven and MUG.
The possibility to engage in focused training on brain imaging techniques, which is rarely offered to ESRs and PhD students, has been well received. The number of attendees of COGDEC Summer and Winter Schools proved that there is a need for more focused trainings in this field in Slovenia and in the wider Central-European region. Additionally, we received requests and questions from undergraduate students, and we noticed the increased interest to study cognitive decline and/or brain imaging techniques from students attending different courses (i.e. Medicine, Psychology, Cognitive Science, Mathematics, Veterinary, Linguistics). As discussed with the coordinators of different educational programs, we expect the interest in research and training activities in COGDEC-related fields to increase in the next few years, leading to an even higher number of ESRs attending human brain imaging trainings and human brain-research joint projects.
Screenshoots of online Summer school 2020
Kick-off meeting in Ljubljana, October 2019
Screenshoot of online Winter school 2020
Lecture by prof. Ribarič on national event "V ritmu mozganov / In the rythm of the brain)"