The World’s Largest Forum for Alzheimer’s Research: Introducing the AAIC 2022 Special Series

Claire Sexton
Claire Sexton, DPhil

AAIC Special Series Part 1:

To kick off our month-long special series previewing the 2022 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, or AAIC, we’ve invited  Claire Sexton, senior director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s scientific programs, to join us to discuss the goals of AAIC, how the pandemic impacted the influential conference, and what she’s looking forward to at this year’s event.

Guest: Claire Sexton, DPhil, senior director of scientific programs and outreach, Alzheimer’s Association

Show Notes

The AAIC is the world’s largest forum for the dementia research community. Register for the plenary events, which are free to the public with registration, at the AAIC website.

Learn more about Dr. Claire Sexton on the Alzheimer’s Association website.

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Dr. Claire Sexton Excerpt: We really want to be bringing the research community together. We want it so that people can share knowledge so that they can spark ideas off one another.

Intro: I’m Dr. Nathaniel Chin, and you’re listening to Dementia Matters, a podcast about Alzheimer's disease. Dementia Matters is a production of the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. Our goal is to educate listeners on the latest news in Alzheimer's disease research and caregiver strategies. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Nathaniel Chin: Welcome back to Dementia Matters. I'm excited for today's episode. It marks the beginning of our month-long coverage leading up to the Alzheimer's Association International Conference, or AAIC. This annual scientific gathering is the world's largest forum for the dementia research community. With this Dementia Matters/AAIC special series, we'll be previewing some of the plenary talks in scientific topics and getting to know the presenters. Episodes will drop regularly over the next four weeks so subscribe to the podcast to receive notifications about new episodes. We are kicking off this Dementia Matters/AAIC special series with an interview with Dr. Claire Sexton, the senior director for scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer's Association. In this role, Dr. Sexton works with a committee of expert researchers to develop the AAIC scientific programs. She will offer a preview of AAIC 2022 and tell us all the ways people can join the conference. Claire, welcome to Dementia Matters.

Dr. Claire Sexton: Thank you. I'm a longtime listener of Dementia Matters, so it's a real pleasure to be here with you today.

Chin: Well thank you for your membership! To start, what is AAIC and how does it fit into the Alzheimer's Association overall strategy?

Sexton: Yeah, so then, first thinking about the overall strategy. A key aim of the Association is to be accelerating research. We do this by funding research – we have over $300 million in active funding supporting 920 projects around the world – but we also do it by convening researchers. We bring them together all year round through our membership society ISTAART but then also at our conferences, and AAIC is our cornerstone annual conference. It's the world's largest and most influential Alzheimer's and dementia conference and it brings together thousands of attendees the world over. The content spans pretty much every aspect of dementia science, so you know there's content on the latest lab work on basic science studies, biomarkers, assessing disease course, and then also how we can intervene, whether that's through public health initiatives to reduce risk through what's the latest in the drug development pipeline or how can we personalize dementia care. Really any aspect of dementia science that you can think of should be represented in some way shape or form.

Chin: And the Alzheimer Association does actually have a lot of different webinars and events throughout the year, so as someone who pays close attention to these educational events it is quite frequent. I will tell you when I entered the field everyone talked to me about AAIC – ‘are you going to AAIC?’ And it’s something that I think most people have heard of in the field of Alzheimer's disease and certainly Alzheimer's disease research. Knowing this huge reputation but also that it's a part of a whole series of programs, what is or what are the primary goals of AAIC specifically?

Sexton: Yeah, I mean we really want to be bringing the research community together. We want it so that people can share knowledge so that they can spark ideas off one another, as I say that multidisciplinary approach so that you can meet others in the exact area of research that you're working in and learn from them, hear their latest results, but also that you've got that opportunity to learn about other fields which are more aligned. Then taking that knowledge then you can make those lasting connections, you can start new collaborations and really for this span in every type of science but also every career stage. We have our ISTAART ambassadors who help out volunteering at AAIC and supporting the sessions who are all undergraduate, graduate students and a couple of postdocs all the way up to very seasoned researchers and clinicians attending AAIC as well.

Chin: You have a free registration option that allows people to view plenary speakers and some of the other AAIC content. Tell us about this special registration and why and when the association launched it.

Sexton: Yes, so I mean pre pandemic AAIC was an in-person only conference. And then in 2020, we had to change and we went fully virtual. When we went fully virtual we saw such a widening of our audience, because before that if you wanted to attend AAIC, you'd have to travel. You know, it's a five day conference. In order to be doing that, you have to really be quite invested in the field. Whereas with a virtual conference, that bar of investment is lower. You don't have to be able to travel, to be spending all day every day in sessions. If you're somebody who really just has - you may be working in another area of neuroscience or another area of science, or you might be a research participant and you might just want to tune in for an hour or two across the whole week. Now with this plenary pass then you can do that and you can just tune into those main sessions. So the plenary sessions are talks which are given by real world leaders in the field. They present that big picture of a topic. They are our most accessible sessions in many ways, so we wanted to make sure that they're there and they're available to everyone who may not have time to attend the whole conference. Also just to mention with the plenary pass, we're also containing within that an AAIC highlight session. This is taking place on the final day of the conference on Thursday, and we're going to hear from a panel of people of what their highlights have been. And this is you know from multiple perspectives so we'll have you know an early-career researcher. We'll have a clinician, also somebody living with dementia so that we can hear from multiple angles, what they've what their take-homes from the conference have been. So I think if you were only to tune into one session, that would be a great one just to get that big picture of what happened at AAIC this year.

Chin: And I'm glad you mentioned research participants because so often, of course, research is because of the participants and their willingness to do it. They want to know what are other centers doing, what are the other sites doing studies doing? And you have really made this accessible to them by being free. I mean, it's an incredible thing to do. Anyone can tune in on their lunch break from their own home or their worksite to be able to see some of the fascinating things happening truly by the thought leaders in the field.

Sexton: Yes, so then the plenary path is free for everyone, but also, you know, if somebody is a research participant and a study that they're presenting is being talked about at AAIC, they can email us and they can get a free pass to ensure that they can also see that session as well.

Chin: What an amazing gift, just as their gift to the research community. And so, this free registration option really was the result of the pandemic and so I'm wondering how else did the pandemic affect the AAIC steering committee or just the organization itself?

Sexton: Yeah so then, also we did see the audience widen in other ways. Not just other researchers from other fields joining, but we saw more early-career researchers. The proportion of people under the age of 35 went from 27% up to 41%. We saw more women attending. We saw more people who are based in low- and middle-income countries attend. Now we're trying to ensure that we maintain that accessibility and that equity and access. Virtual access for the whole conference is free for ISTAART members and joining ISTAART is free for students and for those based in low- and middle-income countries. Then also, now we're hybrid. We wanted that part to be accessible to all so we've reflected that in our pricing structure and want it to be really as inclusive as engaging as possible. The virtual attendees can watch live, they can submit questions at the same time, but for the people who are in-person again, we want additional activities that are interactive so we have our receptions. We also have lunchtime student workshops which are focused on having small groups on topics about how to get funding for your research, publishing, how to include people living with dementia in your research. Then there's all of these extra ways to kind of make up for lost time in terms of those interactions.

Chin: In your position you have the thirty thousand-foot view of Alzheimer's disease research in the entire world. What are some of the trends in Alzheimer's disease and related dementia's research?

Sexton: So I mean – all of it's continuing to grow. Like this year, we saw the highest ever developing topic submissions, so we're seeing you know growth across the field which is so exciting to see. Biomarkers is a theme that's especially strong. That's a theme that really has the largest amount of abstract submissions in recent years and that spans from the latest on neuroimaging studies, CSF blood tests, and also exploring other techniques like the eye and retinal biomarkers as well.

Chin: Now I don't want to get you into any trouble with any specific researchers or the committee, but I'd like to know your own personal opinion on what areas of the research are most exciting or promising to you.

Sexton: Yeah I'm unbiased. I love them all equally, but in order to answer your question then maybe I can talk a little bit about blood tests because I think every year for AAIC, recently, we've seen something new. So my first AAIC was actually fairly recent. It was 2019, just before I joined the association. There, we heard more about the progress in amyloid blood tests. Then the next year, in 2020, we heard more about how it's also possible to have measures of tau in the blood. Last year we heard about how blood tests can be used not only to differentiate between people who have dementia and people who don't have any cognitive impairment, but also that they can be used to track and can be shown to change in response to treatments. So then we're seeing the development and the expansion of these and I think this year we'll see greater consideration of how then these translations, these advances that we've seen, can go from research settings, go from clinical trials, into our communities. You know, what's that road map for clinical implementation? How are these biomarkers influenced by other conditions, for example? How do they vary in different populations? So I think those will be important discussions that we hear at aa I see this year. Yeah.

Chin: Like you, I am excited about all the categories but I did want some of our listeners who might be patients or people with family members to know that there are special tracks within the AAIC conference and one of them is a dementia care pathway for those who are specifically interested in clinical care, in the advances in clinical care or some of the creativity that's being put into how can we best care for people with changes. I just want them to know that that's also going to be present at this huge research conference. I'm wondering if you can tell me, what speakers are you looking forward to hearing this year?

Sexton: Yes, so I'm especially looking forward to hearing Margot Kushel, who's one of our plenary speakers and who's going to be talking about her work which is around aging and homelessness. You know her work focuses on longitudinal cohort studies examining the causes and the effects of homelessness on older adults and on their affects on health measures. She also works to implement programmatic and policy changes based upon her research. I think this is a topic that we can see in our lives every day but it's not one that I've seen covered at conferences previously. So I think – this being a plenary presentation center stage at AAIC – it's tremendously important and that's probably the number one session that I'm looking forward to this year.

Chin: And so Claire, to end, where do you see Alzheimer's disease and related dementia research going in the next five years, and what are the key areas you think need more attention than what they're getting right now?

Sexton: Yeah, so I think we'll just see greater expansion. We’ve seen greater numbers of attendees from different countries participate and we'll be seeing greater kinds of globalization in research. Hopefully that will continue to increase. Also I think what we'll be hearing more about is combination therapies, so that it's not just that we're looking at therapeutics that are based on one pathway, not just one target, but multiple pathways, multiple targets, multiple approaches. Ultimately they're not just pharmacological but combining pharmacological treatments with nonpharmacological. So there's a lot of studies that are going on at the moment about these kinds of nonpharmacological interventions and how we can target lifestyle factors. These are ones that will be reporting at AAIC about where they're at but many are ongoing. You know, these can take a while to be done so it will be in the next few years, we'll be hearing more about them.

Chin: With that, I'd like to thank you for your time and for kicking off this Dementia Matters/AAIC special series. We look forward to you and our other future guests.

Sexton: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

Outro: Thanks for listening to Dementia Matters. Be sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts to be notified about upcoming episodes. You can also listen to our show by asking your smart speaker to play the Dementia Matters podcast. And please rate us on your favorite podcast app -- it helps other people find our show and lets us know how we are doing. Dementia Matters is brought to you by the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. The Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center combines academic, clinical, and research expertise from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center of the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. It receives funding from private university, state, and national sources, including a grant from the National Institutes of Health for Alzheimer's Disease Centers. This episode of Dementia Matters was produced by Rebecca Wasieleski and edited by Caoilfhinn Rauwerdink. Our musical jingle is "Cases to Rest" by Blue Dot Sessions. To learn more about the Wisconsin Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and Dementia Matters, check out our website at You can also follow our Facebook page at Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and our Twitter @wisconsinadrc. If you have any questions or comments, email us at Thanks for listening.