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Quantifying ageing related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - COGDEC (Quantifying ageing related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2020-12-31

With increasing ageing of European population, the goal to understand the ageing-related cognitive decline and find new diagnostic tools to differentiate normal, ageing-related decrease to a state associated with the beginning of mild cognitive impairment became crucial. The aim of the project is knowledge transfer of the state-of the art brain imaging methods from internationally renowned researchers from KU Leuven and MU Graz to the researchers at University in Ljubljana (UL), in order to enable further cooperation and development of advanced techniques and tools to study cognitive decline at UL. Knowledge transfer will be achieved with trainings at advanced partner institutions, ESRs' Summer and Winter schools at UL and with joint activities on national and international grant proposals, including joint PhD projects.
In the first reporting period (October 2019 – December 2020) project partners successfully organized and delivered 26 weeks of trainings at Medical University of Graz and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. 5 trainees from University of Ljubljana attended the trainings in the duration of 12 and 14 weeks, respectively. In addition, University of Ljubljana together with both advanced partners organized and delivered two online Early-Stage Researchers trainings In Ljubljana in June and December 2020, with 22 young researchers completing one week training on EEG/MRI techniques. As result of the first project activities and trainings delivered, project partners started working on 4 joint review/research articles and 1 conference presentation. The Consortium established project webpage and other social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), and increased national recognition of UL MF in Slovenia as a provider of the state-of-the art educational formats in brain imaging methods.

In October 2019 at the Kick-off meeting the organizational structure and decision-making mechanisms between partners were formed. At the end of 2019 part-time administrative staff was selected and employed, and communication channels were established, including web page, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube account. Covid-19 pandemic related restrictions, valid in Slovenia, Austria and Belgium, had strong impact on training related activities. The restrictions changed on unpredictable, yet regular basis, and many times some restrictions were valid in one country, but not in other(s), which made the administrative and organizational processes more challenging and time consuming. However, in 2020 several researchers were partially employed to be able to attend trainings and get involved in the upcoming Early-Stage Researchers’ trainings.

Even though the knowledge transfer in this period has been heavily hindered by the Covid-19 pandemic related restrictions, the main results achieved were substantial. Overall, 5 researchers received 26 weeks of training at the advanced partners Universities: Medical University of Graz (MUG) and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven). MUG prepared a three-week training focusing on different topics – relaxometry, diffusion tensor imaging, and quantitative susceptibility mapping – in the field of advanced quantitative MRI for each of the research trainers. 2 researchers completed the training, with one of them advancing to the tutoring level, and one research trainer partially completed the training. Research trainers at KU Leuven learnt how to pre-process raw EEG signals, how to extract ERPs from it, and they also learnt how to do different types of statistical analyses of EEG signal, including a statistical comparison of different experimental groups in time-frequency domain and how to deal with the multiple comparison problem. One research trainer completed three-weeks training and the second one training of nine weeks, which also resulted in collaboration in joint publication preparation and presentation at internal KU Leuven meeting.

Two trainings for Early-Stage Researchers (ESR’s) were organized at UL in 2020. The Summer School was organized on 22-25/06/2020 and the Winter School on 14-18/12/2020. Schools were delivered by distance learning platforms. 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 we upgraded the learning experience and provided the participants with hands-on training with Matlab software. All together 22 students with different background (medicine, psychology, mathematics, cognitive science, linguistics, etc.) completed the training. Both Schools were registered as elective courses in PhD study program Biomedicine at UL and were attended by 12 PhD students of this program.

The list of potential research topics was agreed among UL, MUG and KU Leuven. Topics covering the field of ageing related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment will focus on: 1) finding the combined biomarkers of early stages of cognitive decline and further design and conduct of a multi-centre study (UL, KU Leuven and MUG) in order to validate the revealed biomarkers and; 2) quantitative MRI techniques to study structure and microstructure of the brain including: MR relaxometry, MR susceptometry, and diffusion tensor imaging with higher order diffusion models.

Four papers in collaboration between KU Leuven and UL are in preparation, with one of them being accepted in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in June 2021.The administrative procedure for establishment of joint KU Leuven and UL PhD studies was initiated and first students were admitted in Spring 2021. The collaboration between MUG and UL in a project, initiated during COGDEC grant submission process, continues and was presented at the ISMRM conference in May 2021.
The Cogdec project aims to enable further development of advanced brain imaging methods to study cognitive decline at the University of Ljubljana and sustain the newly formed research and technology network between KU Leuven, University of Ljubljana and MU Graz for the foreseeable future.

In the first year of project the possibility to engage in focused training on brain imaging techniques, that is rarely offered to early-stage researchers and PhD students, has been well received. The number of attendees of COGDEC Summer and Winter Schools proved that there is the need for more focused trainings in this field in Slovenia. Additionally, we received a few 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 coordinators of different educational programs, we expect the interest in engaging in research and training activities in COGDEC-related fields to increase in the next few years, leading to an even higher number of early stage researchers attending our trainings and joint projects.

In addition, the option to collaborate with KU Leuven and MU Graz was also very well received by Early-Stage researchers to expand their level of knowledge on brain imaging and cognitive decline, and engage in multinational projects and research.
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)"