Publish Date: 10.06.2020

Category: News from the University

Under the coordination of the UL Faculty of Medicine, the University of Ljubljana (UL) successfully applied to the Horizon 2020 European research and innovation programme. UL obtained EUR 2.5 million in EU funds to establish an interdisciplinary Centre for Neuroinformatics, with assistance from an excellent researcher from abroad, who will be recruited by UL through an international call for applications. This is the second ERA Chair project at the University of Ljubljana, funded by Horizon 2020, which will facilitate the development of a promising interdisciplinary research field and strengthen research excellence and the important role of UL and Slovenia in the European Research Area.

The UL project, Chair of Neuroinformatics (CONI), which was submitted to the Horizon 2020 WIDESPREAD-06-2020 ERA Chair call, was invited by the European Commission on 23 March to draw up the grant agreement. The CONI project was prepared by employees of the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Medicine, Faculty of Computer and Information Science, Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, and Faculty of Arts. The preparation of the application was coordinated by Prof. Dr Samo Ribarič, M.D., from the UL Faculty of Medicine. The project involves associations of patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases (Trepetlika and Spominčica), companies developing information technology (Marand, VMA and Vitasis), the Clinical Department of Neurology at the Ljubljana University Medical Centre’s Neurology Clinic, and Psychiatric Hospital Idrija. The Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport of the Republic of Slovenia provided letters of support for the application.

The main aim of CONI is to accelerate the development of the interdisciplinary field of neuroinformatics (NI) at UL, connect stakeholders in this field in Slovenia and strengthen international cooperation with outstanding research groups in Europe and the USA.

Neuroinformatics is a field of research at the intersection of neuroscience (consisting of many different sub-disciplines, e.g., human brain function during development and disease) and information science, concerned with organising neuroscience data using computational models and analytical tools. For example, NI is important in combining, analysing, and interpreting increasingly extensive, large-series, and detailed experimental data and data obtained in the identification and treatment of human brain function in chronic neurodegenerative diseases that lead to dementia. This integration of data takes place in three key phases: the development of neuroscience databases (standards for ontologies, metadata descriptions, data forms, and data sharing); development and sharing of special-purpose, optimised data visualisation and analysis tools and algorithms; and creation and validation of predictive and explanatory computational models of brain structure and function. Due to its nature, NI promotes collaborative interdisciplinary research, which encourages and accelerates brain research on several levels and contributes to a comprehensive understanding of the functioning of the human brain. Linking information science and brain research benefits both fields. Using information technology (IT) protocols, methods and tools, informatics facilitates data processing, modelling and communication of findings in interdisciplinary brain function research. Conversely, advances in brain function research encourage the development of new IT methods.

The short-term goal of the ERA Chair CONI project is also to develop protocols, methods and IT tools for IT-supported clinical pathways and clinical research pathways for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients. A clinical pathway is a multidisciplinary management tool that improves the quality of healthcare by standardising patient care processes and is based on evidence-based practice. It is crucial for the treatment of patients with dementia, such as AD, since they have a relatively long and fairly predictable clinical course.

As part of the CONI project, we will develop a clinical pathway that will enable the integration of more personal sensors into the patient’s everyday environment, which will allow a multidisciplinary team of healthcare providers (family physicians, neurology and psychiatry specialists; hospital nurses and home care providers) to respond remotely and provide 24/7 feedback on the patient’s condition – achieving an optimal continuum of care for AD patients. Collection of data supported by telemetry allows individualised patient care and increases the efficiency of the clinical pathway. There are currently no national or international clinical pathways for AD patients, and patient care is governed by broad guidelines and recommendations for diagnosis and treatment, as well as health insurance rules. The introduction of a clinical pathway for AD patients is a prerequisite for the development of an appropriate clinical research pathway that would increase the effectiveness of clinical research and thus improve the treatment of AD patients with pharmacological and nonpharmacological approaches. Patients with Alzheimer’s dementia are at increased risk of comorbidity, the co-occurrence of other chronic diseases with separate causes, the most common of which are diabetes and hypertension. Therefore, the long-term goal of CONI is to create an IT-supported ecosystem to fully support the maintenance of optimal health in the elderly with chronic diseases. Presidents of the professional associations of family physicians, psychiatrists and neurologists at the Slovenian Medical Association signed a joint statement on cooperation in the development and introduction of a multidisciplinary clinical pathway and clinical research pathway to support comprehensive healthcare for the elderly with chronic diseases in Slovenia.

While people aged 65 and older represented a 19.4% share of the entire population in Slovenia in 2018, this share is expected to stand at almost 32% in 2055. In 2018, the ratio between the working-age population and the population aged 65 and older in Slovenia was 3.37 to 1 (source: EUROPOP2018). In 2100, this ratio is expected to stand at 1.76 to 1 (source: The EU’s population projected up to 2100, 2020). The share of the population aged 59 to 64, which accounted for about 11% of the working-age population in 2015, is expected to more than double by 2030. To increase the participation of the elderly population in the labour market, the Ministry of Labour, Family, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities aims to: increase the employment rate of the elderly, keep them in employment longer, and improve their employability and health (source: Elderly Workers and Labour Market in Slovenia, 2016). CONI reduces the socio-economic consequences of the declining active population and the ageing of the population in Slovenia, as it contributes to the comprehensive support for maintaining the optimal health in the elderly with chronic diseases.

In order to meet the objectives of the project, the head of the ERA Chair CONI, who will take over the management and staff recruitment process at the newly established UL Centre for Neuroinformatics, will be selected through an international call. The head of the ERA Chair CONI will cooperate with colleagues at UL and abroad in performing the following tasks: develop the field of neuroinformatics in Slovenia by organising international workshops and delivering undergraduate and postgraduate education, secure domestic and international projects, recruit new employees for the Centre for Neuroinformatics, and network with IT companies at home and abroad with the aim of jointly developing and marketing IT products.

The preparation of the project was supported by the UL Development Fund, established by the University of Ljubljana in 2015 to encourage researchers to apply for EU projects and assist them in this process.