DAEM´s research agenda strongly focuses on the development of theory-driven assessment methods for the preclinical/early prodromal detection of dementia.
We have developed a Virtual Reality Assessment and Intervention System (VRAIS) that monitors participant's Activities of Daily Living (ADL). VRAIS consists of a real life setting (i.e. kitchen) wherein we assess performance on everyday activities, either as a real (left panel Figure below) or as a virtual environment (right panel Figure below). VRAIS allows investigation of which particular activities of daily living becomes challenging and if VR training can be used as a rehabilitation training to retain ADL in patients with sings of early Alzheimer Disease (AD).
My involvement in the DAEM team began this year in May 2017, whilst being an undergraduate psychology student. I won a vocational scholarship awarded from Medical Research Scotland. Through this scholarship, I have been engaged in running a project called "assessing young adults’ performance on familiar kitchen tasks" in our brand new 'kitchen' lab. For this task participants study a list of everyday life tasks- the kitchen tasks. For example, making a cup of tea after which they are asked to perform it a real environment (the kitchen lab).
I carefully monitored performance (using an ecologically valid scoring method) whilst observing participants performing the kitchen tasks. I found that the less familiar a task is, in relation to normal everyday kitchen activities, the worse participants were at remembering the individual activities and more errors they made while performing the kitchen tasks. I reckoned this should be similar to what happen to people who are developing dementia because as the disease progresses their memories of well-known tasks (hence familiarity) fade away.
These findings were expected. Importantly, our result shows that specific types of errors become more prevalent as a task becomes more unfamiliar. We expect to observe a similar error pattern in patients with early signs of Dementia (i.e. Mild Cognitive Impairment- MCI). The aim of the unfamiliar task was to resemble, as much as possible, the challenges that such individuals would experience as their memory and abilities to function in similar settings progressively decline. I was pleased to see that such experimental manipulations are possible in testing settings akin to real life scenarios.
Throughout this project, I was able to work collaboratively in a research environment and be a part of a well-established research team- the DAEM Team. I also participated in meetings discussions. I found it especially stimulating that, under supervision, I was led in charge of developing my own project where I combined the unfamiliar task with EEG. My work contributes to developing a new methodological framework, which focuses on identifying differences in patterns in brain activation when people perform everyday life tasks.
Furthermore, I was actively involved in all aspects of DAEM team research and by taking part in this project. I have learned a lot of all the things that are involved in research, and most importantly, in research that informs about meaningful changes that render individuals less able to live and function independently.
Moreover, under supervision, I developed a new version of VRAIS task called the ‘unfamiliar kitchen task’. For example, participants are asked to make a bowl of cereals using a kettle (as a bowl), sponge (cereals) and napkin (milk). This was to explore whether “simple everyday life tasks” become more and more challenging for young healthy individuals while the familiarity of such tasks disappears, as seen in case of AD.
In addition to assessing participant's performance behaviorally, I also applied electrophysiological techniques (EEG) where I was given training that allowed me to test participants in the lab independently. I did this because I was interested to investigate the brain patterns that occur when participants (healthy young adults) study and perform unfamiliar kitchen tasks. Through this approach I can answer questions such as whether brain activity elicited during the study phase predicts task performance. I will be important to investigate if similar brain patterns can be found in MCI patients while they perform common everyday kitchen tasks.
I believe that obtaining such skills that I received from DAEM team via my scholarship are very beneficial as they prepare me optimally for a future career in neuroscience and research. Indeed, the hands-on experience I received from the whole team made me even more determined to continue working further in this field.
My work with the DEAM has now resulted in a Research Assistant position which I was offered after I successfully completed my scholarship. I will be able to continue my work with the DAEM team on the projects that aims to restore and rehabilitate cognitive functions in a way akin to how people function in everyday life settings, here at Heriot-Watt University. I have gratefully welcome this opportunity as it will allow me to continue strengthening my skills and thus to more successfully meet the challenges of future postgraduate opportunities, which I am determined to pursue.
DAEM: Detecting Alzheimer's and Enhancing Memory
Team: Dr. Clara Calia, Dr. MeiYi Lim, Dr. Serge Hoefeijzers, Miss Nicola Sobieraj, Professor Ruth Aylett, and Dr Mario A Parra