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Following on from the SDRC’s busy week last week of launching both our Resource Funding and our Mentorship Scheme, we are pleased to bring you more blogs from our Early Career Researcher members, sharing how COVID has impacted them professionally and personally. Today’s blog is by Angus Addlesee, who is doing his PhD research around communication and cognitive impairment.  If you haven’t seen our other COVID impact blogs yet, or would like to catch up with the full series, you can read them here. 

Talking to friends, colleagues and family members is so important for our social support and wellbeing. My current research depends upon these core human, face-to-face conversations that are no longer safe to have due to coronavirus. We all verbally hesitate while talking (using ‘umm’ and ‘hmm’ for example) but we also use facial expressions and nodding to visually interact with each other. As so many aspects of conversation are subconscious, I am researching how people interact and in what way this changes as cognition declines.

Over the past year I have collaborated with Alzheimer Scotland, Edinburgh Medical School and Heriot-Watt’s Interaction Lab to work on this investigation and get it ethically approved. We want to record natural spontaneous conversations between two people, one of which has dementia. These recordings will be non-medical chats about a fun journey across an imaginary land but there is one very important requirement.
These conversations need to be face-to-face. It is of course unsafe to carry out this experiment at the moment and I expect that Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Resource Centres will be extremely busy when they re-open. It is highly likely that I will need to extend my PhD because of this. I am very passionate about my research however and we will definitely continue once it is safe to do so!

One conversational difference that we will certainly find is the number of pauses and length of these pauses. We all forget the word we are looking for at times but this becomes more common and more pronounced as cognition declines. While searching for a word, we hesitate and pause longer than usual – hence our prediction of more frequent and longer pauses as dementia progresses. Other verbal cues also change and visual interaction likely does too (nodding more frequently for example) but we need to explore this further. Data is
required to do this which is exactly the problem coronavirus has caused.

My eventual goal is to adapt voice assistants (such as Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, etc…) to be more accessible for people with cognitive impairments. To do this, we need to know how speech evolves and which of these changes cause a voice assistant to fail (causing unnecessary frustration). This should ultimately help people live in their own homes longer and more independently.

In conclusion, my PhD has been impacted by COVID-19 and I will likely need an extension to complete my research safely because face-to-face conversations are risky. For now however you can give someone a call, enjoy a distanced conversation and as my grandma always says – keep smiling 🙂

 If you are an ECR or student in a field relating to dementia or brain health and would like to write a blog for the SDRC on how COVID has impacted your research, please get in touch.