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Dementias Platform UK report reveals multiple impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on dementia research

Thursday 24 June 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life, as measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 have interrupted normal ways of working. Many types of research have been put on hold, with restrictions on the numbers of researchers able to work on-site and reductions in face-to-face clinical research visits to limit physical contacts between individuals.   In order to better understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on dementia research, Dr. Natassia Brenman (in collaboration with Dr. Richard Milne and a team from Dementias Platform UK/DPUK) held focus group discussions with on-site clinical researchers, off-site researchers using digital and remote methods, and Investigators leading clinical research sites.

Four key themes emerged from these discussions. Firstly, researchers felt that COVID-19 research was being prioritised over research on dementia, increasing academic precarity for early-career researchers and slowing the progress of ongoing studies. Compounding this issue, discussions also identified concerns relating to inclusion and access to dementia research for older people with cognitive impairment or dementia. Investigators highlighted the fact that underrepresentation of certain groups in dementia research (e.g. ethnic minorities) has been exacerbated by the pandemic, in part due to practical issues in accessing clinical sites and also due to lower levels of vaccine uptake in certain populations. Another key theme was centred around practical and ethical challenges to conducting dementia research during a pandemic: for example, maintaining a connection with study participants whilst respecting physical distancing guidelines and wearing face-obscuring personal protective equipment. Finally, the focus group participants expressed differing views on the increasing use of digital technologies for remote assessment and monitoring, with enthusiasm for new and more accessible methodologies on the one hand, and concerns about their scientific and clinical validity on the other.

Commenting on the report, Dr. Brenman said: "This research raises even more questions than it answers, highlighting the need to engage with the social and ethical uncertainties about dementia research as well as the practical and scientific challenges. This should be done by listening closely to those navigating these issues day-to-day."