HEMS 1: Visual short-memory as a screening tool to detect early cognitive decline

Applications have now closed for our 2021/2 Vice Chancellor's PhD Scholarships. We will contact applicants in due course.

Faculty: Health, Education, Medicine and Social Care

Supervisors: Prof Shahina Pardhan, Dr Raju Sapkota, Dr Ian van der Linde and Prof Nirmal Lamichhane

Interview date: 18 May 2021

Dementia affects over 885,000 people in the UK, reducing quality of life and costing the UK economy over £34 billion per year. People with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease (60-80% of all dementia cases), as they represent early stages of dementia.

It is important that people with MCI are screened early as timely detection is critical for effective interventions aimed at improving symptoms, quality of life and future planning. However, not everyone with MCI undergoes a test and is offered a diagnosis. In addition, routine tests of dementia do not focus on the specific cognitive functions that are mediated by the hippocampi which are affected in MCI.

One important cognitive function, supported by the hippocampi, is ‘memory binding’ in which different features of an item (e.g., appearance, names, location) are combined. Memory binding is vital for everyday activities i.e. identifying where (location) one’s keys (object) are, or recalling the names of acquaintances (faces, names). Although the hippocampus has been implicated in early dementia, cognitive functions such as memory binding in visual short-term memory (VSTM) task have not been studied in detail.

More importantly, memory binding as a screening tool for early detection of MCI has not been studied adequately. Our preliminary studies have examined memory binding performance in VTSM tasks on a smaller group (n= ≤36) of young, normal older and MCI participants. Our data show that performance declines with age, and is also affected in people with MCI when compared to age/education-matched controls.

The researcher will be hosted by the Vision and Eye Research Institute (VERI), whose research profile was rated as world-class/internationally excellent in REF2014, and which is committed to delivering research and innovation of outstanding quality and impact whilst nurturing multi-disciplinary research.

The objectives of this project are:

  1. To refine and validate the VSTM tests that have shown promise on a larger number of participants. This will allow categorisation of VSTM data with regards to age, MCI and gender.
  2. To determine which VSTM binding features are influenced by vision disorders (reduced contrast/visual acuity).

The project outcomes will:

  1. Benefit patients and the public. The project will identify which VSTM task/parameters will be most effective in normally ageing individuals and in those with MCI. Early detection of dementia will help patients to plan their future and identify support they will need while they are still in capacity to engage in decision-making.
  2. Benefit clinicians by improving clinical practice through improved neuropsychological tests of early cognitive decline in normal ageing and dementia.

Funding notes

This successful applicant for this project will receive a Vice Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship which covers Home tuition fees and provides a UKRI equivalent minimum annual stipend for three years. For 2021/2 this will be £15,609 per year. The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the scholarship terms and conditions. Please note that the University asserts the right to claim any intellectual property generated by research it funds.

Download the full terms and conditions.