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Research Luxembourg startup Magrid is rising further

Magrid, a game-changing maths training solution.

Magrid strips away the linguistic part of learning mathematics using language-free visual tasks through a workbook and an app.

The startup is the result of more than five years of research and development at the University of Luxembourg.

Magrid recently won a social innovation competition organised by the European Investment Bank (EIB) Institute.

Designed by former PhD student Tahereh Pazouki as part of her doctoral research project, Magrid was developed at the University of Luxembourg Incubator.

Turning research into business

Magrid is a language-neutral early math solution that aims to make mathematics education accessible to all children, regardless of their language background. By presenting tasks and training concepts in a visual way, students explore an interactive environment to find a solution to a specific assignment. 

Developed by former University of Luxembourg PhD student Tahereh Pazouki and hosted by its incubator, Magrid was first made available to Luxembourg primary schools and specialised learning centres before being officially launched.

Magrid is one of the prime examples of Luxembourg’s commitment to building bridges between research and business. Indeed, the project received support from the Luxembourg National Research Fund’s competitive funding programme. The JUMP scheme, as it is called, is designed to bridge the technical and financial gap between research discoveries and their commercialisation/utilisation.

Demystifying research, facilitating partnerships and supporting open innovation, Research Luxembourg contributes to fostering the relationship between research and business, in particular through public funding programmes.

Magrid, an award-winning startup

Magrid has already made a name for itself being one of the 40 startups to win a World Summit Award, handed out to businesses that contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

More recently, the company won first prize in the General Category of the 10th edition of the Social Innovation Tournament, held in Lisbon and online on 7 October 2021. This initiative of the European Investment Bank’s Institute aims to recognise and support the best European social entrepreneurs.

More about Magrid

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21st Century Education

Teaching in the digital and social media age

How do digital technologies and social media fit in with teaching in Luxembourg? Are they changing educational approaches?

Dr Bob Reuter, a senior lecturer and Vice-head of the Research Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Luxembourg, examines how schools in Luxembourg are reacting to the digital revolution. What does teaching with digital media look like? 

How digital has changed the face of teaching

Over the last decades, digital media and technologies have profoundly changed how people access information, how they communicate with each other, how they collaborate, how they produce knowledge and art and how they publish their works. Google, smartphones and applications, to name but a few, have fundamentally changed the way we get access to knowledge and the way we learn.

Schools, as privileged places of learning, have largely not adapted their everyday functioning to these ambient changes. As a matter of fact, the devices that give us the means to tap into sources of information are often forbidden in schools.

In his research Dr Bob Reuter examines how teachers use digital media to teach, which pedagogical practices are supported by the help of digital technologies but also how pedagogical practices have changed over the last decades under the influence of digital.

I study the uses of digital media and technologies in educational settings. I’m interested in how and why teachers and students use these tools to support, enhance or transform learning & teaching processes. More generally, I want to understand how digital media and technologies have changed our relationships to knowledge, power, others and ourselves; and how schools have or have not adapted to these changes.”

— Dr Bob Reuter

Dr Bob Reuter

Digital tools used to support teaching not for autonomous student learning

Dr Reuter uses a variety of research methods to find out how teachers use digital media and technologies in their classrooms. These include interviews with teachers to know how they use digital tools, why they use them, what their motivations and fears are. The researcher also uses questionnaires to study, more on large scale, how digital is used in Luxembourg schools. Finally, he regularly goes into classrooms to observe how digital is used, how children use them, together or alone, and how they interact when using tablets.

From data collected, the practices often remain very much based on teacher-centric approaches. It means that teachers use digital technology to support their instruction. Yet, activities where students themselves use digital tools to be creative and productive remain rather rare.

Generally speaking, digital tools fit very well into the traditional teaching mode, where a teacher speaks to the class and uses the blackboard or a projected computer screen to illustrate – with or without multimedia.

Schools and teachers willing to take up the challenges of the digital revolution


Schools and teachers are increasingly willing to take up the challenges of the digital revolution


Better digital equipment in schools


For many teachers, it is still unclear how they should use these new tools in their teaching.

There is therefore a need for training programmes that help teachers to consider advanced and transformative uses of digital in education.


A teacher with a learner-centric approach to teaching will adopt new technologies more readily than a teacher with a teacher-centric approach, or at least their uses will be quite different in terms of learning/teaching activities that can be supported or enhanced by digital tools.

Based on these findings, the Luxembourg researcher supports schools in teaching differently, enriching them through the use of media and technology. In particular, he advises the Ministry and certain schools on the implementation of the “Digital(4)Education” strategy.

Aimed to develop skills & know-how fit for the 21st century, Digital4Education’s mission is to prepare young people for a professional landscape of rapid and permanent change.

Find out more about of the Research Institute for Teaching and Learning of University of Luxembourg.

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In conversation with our young researchers: Dr Lorella Viola

The impact of digital on humanities research is far-reaching. On top of changing the way many researchers conduct their work, it has also spawned entirely new fields of research, such as digital humanities. Linguist Lorella Viola is examining how software can enable critical digital humanities practice.

Dr Lorella Viola, a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH), has focussed on designing Digital Humanities methodologies that combine both quantitative and qualitative analyses and assist humanities scholars to contextualise and unveil the patterns hidden within large digital collections.

Embedding the active role of the researcher in the process of knowledge production in a digital environment

Lorella Viola’s research explores how software can empower a critical practice of digital humanities. As such, she looks at both the use of technology and the processes that generate it. It includes the historical, social, political, cultural and ethical impact of digital for research.

The role of the linguist is to bring the critical thinking of the humanities not just to the functionalities of the software, but also to the very technologies, methods and infrastructures that support the project

The aim is to further strengthen and promote cultural criticism in digital practices by embedding the active role of the researcher in the process of knowledge production in a digital environment.

Lorella Viola

Previously, Lorella developed critical, data-driven methodologies that assist researchers in investigating the relationship between language, media and society in large historical textual repositories.

Interdisciplinary to enable critical digital history practice

Lorella’s work is part of the ‘Digital History Advanced Research Projects Accelerator’ (DHARPA). Bringing together an interdisciplinary team, the project aims to assess the impact of technology on historical research. It also seeks to experiment with how technology can reshape the methodological underpinnings of history as a scientific discipline. The project is led by FNR PEARL Chair Sean Takats at the C2DH at the University of Luxembourg.

Lorella’s research fuels the team’s work towards building software to facilitate computational analysis, replicability, transparency, Open Access publication, standardisation and research dissemination.

Why Luxembourg as a research destination?

“I came to Luxembourg because the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) where I am based is of the highest expertise and resources in Europe for the study of the epistemological consequences of digital technologies for history and the humanities at large. C2DH is for me the perfect environment to explore how to embed criticality into the development and application of digital tools and methodologies for humanities and social science research as well as to foster transparency, reproducibility and accountability in digital humanities practice. C2DH is also highly interdisciplinary and therefore it was the natural fit for my research.”

— Dr Lorella Viola, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) .

Read more about the DHARPA research project

Extracts from Spotlight on Young Researchers: Empowering critical digital humanities practice

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5 new strategic research and innovation projects made in Luxembourg

The INITIATE programme supports the initiation and development of strategic research and innovation project ideas that will help make Luxembourg internationally competitive in priority domains. Five INITIATE projects have been granted so far.

Through INITIATE, the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR) wishes to back and guide the early-stage development of high-risk/high-reward strategic project ideas, up to the point where a solid project proposal is formulated that can potentially be submitted to other strategic programmes, a dedicated one-time call, or a bespoke “package” of funding  instruments.

Five projects have been granted so far: round-up.

NATIONTWIN (Responsible AI for a NATION-wide and privacy preserving Digital TWIN)

The objective of this proposed project is to investigate the feasibility at the Luxembourg scale of a future strategic programme associated with the research and the implementation of a testbed and a living lab related to  a “Nation-wide and privacy preservation digital twin” enabled by “responsible AI”.

Main coordinating institution:  Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST)

Education 21

Education plays a central role in our lives. It shapes our future and lays the foundations of cultural and technical innovations. Education also makes us resilient to crises and allows us to thrive in an uncertain, rapidly changing world. It is now urgent to update Education for the 21st century, to empower people in lifelong learning and offer equality of educational opportunities in a multilingual and diverse society.

To meet this national research priority, the project will unite specialists from Education, Psychology, Sociology and Computer Science and design an innovative, interdisciplinary research initiative that aims to establish Luxembourg as a frontrunner in 21st Century Educational Research.

Digital technologies and large-scale data hold the potential to dramatically improve Education; but they also comprise serious risks of dehumanization and data privacy breaches. The goal is to develop and scientifically validate human-centric, digitally enhanced learning solutions. Putting people at the centre of the efforts, these solutions will be directly usable by the learners and advance the understanding on how humans of all ages and backgrounds learn best. More specifically, the project will develop four flagship projects that revolve around personalized education: a digital learning assistant, a digital teacher assistant, a lifelong learner pass and a skills market dashboard.

Main coordinating institution: University of Luxembourg

Henriette and André Losch Centre for Childhood Disorders

The aim of the proposed “Henriette and André Losch Centre for Childhood Disorders” (hereinafter “Losch Centre”) is to carry out fundamental, translational and clinical research to understand the underlying mechanisms of childhood diseases and to develop new methods for their prevention, diagnosis and treatment. The Losch Centre’s research will focus on rare childhood disorders of the brain, metabolism and the immune system and the interaction thereof.

Main coordinating institutions: Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB/University of Luxembourg) & National Health Laboratory (LNS)

Automation and personalisation in complex financial systems – a concept for a national Centre of Excellence in Research in Financial Technologies

Investigating the feasibility of creating a national Centre of Excellence in Financial Technologies. Focus, from a business perspective, on automation and personalisation in complex financial systems. Hub of excellence in financial technology research and innovation, education and training, business development and thought leadership, and strengthening of Luxembourg’s position as an international financial centre. The idea of the centre is driven by the government’s objective to establish Luxembourg as the most trusted “data economy” in the European Union by 2023.

Main coordinating institution: Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT/University of Luxembourg)

Clinnova: Unlocking the potential of data science and artificial intelligence in health care

Health data and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are at the heart of an accelerating digital health revolution. It promises direct benefits for people with or without disease and is expected to become a key driver of the digital economy. Hence, digital health is one of the national priorities of the Luxembourgish government. Clinnova aims at putting Luxembourg into the centre of this emerging arena. To develop integrated, AI-driven healthcare solutions Clinnova will create a data-enabling environment by establishing a data integration centre as well as by developing shared approaches for data integration and data interoperability. Initially, the creation of data-driven health solutions will be supported by three defined medical use cases in chronic inflammatory diseases (inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid diseases and multiple sclerosis). Expanding further into additional patient data, the established infrastructure and workflows have the potential to transform the healthcare system towards personalisation, sustainability and prevention and will be an important resource for further public and private partnerships.

Further, Clinnova’s ability to tie in leading clinicians across University hospitals and private clinics in France, Germany and Luxembourg around shared patient stratification approaches is at the core of the effort and will be a blueprint for developing integrated, cross-border digital health solutions.

Main coordinating institution: Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH)

More information on the INITIATE programme on the FNR’s website

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University of Luxembourg opens a new Master of Data Science

Starting September 2021, the University of Luxembourg will offer a new Master of Data Science. Based on a multidisciplinary approach, the Master’s programme will train students in data analysis, modelling and management, and prepare them to work in areas as artificial intelligence (A.I), cloud computing, machine and statistical learning or big data.
© Stockphotosecrets

Innovative and interdisciplinary programme

The Master of Data Science, which will be hosted at the Faculty of Science, Technology and Medicine (FSTM), will train carefully selected students in a multidisciplinary approach. The Master’s programme will build on existing synergies between the University’s disciplines and two of its research centres, the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine and the Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust. Teaching and research activities will be led by renowned academics and researchers from Luxembourg and abroad, who will guide students through the many techniques of data science. In parallel, invited industry experts will help students solve industry-related problems.

“The Master’s programme covers many aspects of data science, including data mining, data processing, data visualisation, statistical modelling and database management. Particular emphasis is placed on machine learning and deep learning techniques and their applications to life sciences, medicine and physics. The pedagogical approaches are varied and based on the practice of data science in each of these disciplines”, explains Prof. Yannick Baraud, course director of the Master.

Prof. Yannick Baraud

Data scientist, a unique profile

Data scientists are trained as both mathematicians and computer scientists. This profile makes them the preferred choice for facing the new challenges of the digital transformation.

Data scientists support decision-making, business modelling and innovation, but are also instrumental to provide legally responsible data management, since improperly managed data can easily become a great liability.

“This new programme is an exciting development. It builds on the recent recruitment of excellent researchers in data science, including statistics and machine learning, and will allow the Faculty to better support the Luxembourg economy by attracting and training talented students in this dynamic field”, adds Prof. Jean-Marc Schlenker, dean of the FSTM.

Industrial and commercial data, key economic drivers

As the fourth industrial revolution unfolds, the global economy and the job market are undergoing fundamental changes. As companies embrace digital transformation, as data sets grow in size and complexity and the opportunities linked to smart connected objects evolve, economic players require skilled data scientists. For sectors such as telecommunications, finance, retail or marketing, data experts are a necessity while sectors as agronomy and transport increasingly seek skilled data experts.

The European Data Strategy predicts that in the next four years the European data economy will account for 6% of the EU’s GDP (830 million euros) and that the number of data professionals on its labour market will have risen from 6 million to 11 million.

On the national level, Luxembourg embraces the process of digital transformation, and the Master of Data Science aligns with the country’s strategy and ambition of a digital nation. “Helping to drive digital innovation and development is one of the strategic priorities of the University, both in its research and its teaching activities, states Prof. Stéphane Pallage, rector of the University. “This is in line with our willingness to explore and address the opportunities and challenges created by the digital revolution. The new Master’s programme is an important element in the implementation of our strategy to grow the pool of promising students and highly skilled researchers at the University and in the region.” 

Data science is also one of intensive research. Graduates of the Master will be trained to go beyond the standard data analyses and model programming, to innovate and improve. For graduates entering the job market, the Master will provide a ticket to choose their future career path. For students wishing to continue an academic career, the Master’s training will prepare them to pursue a PhD in mathematics, computer science or computational sciences.

Learn more on the Master of Data Science

This article was originally published by the University of Luxembourg

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Luxembourg funded by the EU to address the issue of urban health

Prof. Martin Dijst of LISER (Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research) will coordinate a Marie Curie ITN (Innovative Training Networks) project that fosters new skills

Through its Horizon 2020 programme, the EU has funded the “Systems approach of URban enviRonmEnts and heALth (SURREAL)” project, led by Prof. Martin Dijst, Director of the Urban Development & Mobility Department at  LISER.

With this project “Systems approach of URban enviRonmEnts and heALth (SURREAL)”, an ITN Innovative Training Network of the H2020 funding programme will for the very first time be coordinated from Luxembourg and will be deployed across the entire network including France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Israel and Estonia.

The aim of the ITN (Innovative Training Networks) is to increase the scientific excellence and innovative character of doctoral research and training in Europe (EU Member States and countries associated to Horizon 2020), by extending the traditional framework of training to university research in a pioneering and original way. ITNs are resolutely interdisciplinary projects that can respond to major economic and social challenges

© Shutterstock

Why unravel the complexity of urban health?

Worldwide, people’s health status has increasingly been put under pressure by demographic growth, primary energy uses, mobility, and urbanization. Every year, more than 1.2 million people on average die prematurely in EU countries. However, there are large disparities in life expectancy in terms of socio-economic status, gender, age, and ethnicity. On the one hand, cities are especially prone to creating the conditions for health problems, such as sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets, air and other pollutions, and stress. On the other hand, cities also offer opportunities for structural and long-lasting healthy transformations in lifestyles and health status. However, the big question is to figure out how to achieve these transformations in a situation where the complexity of urban health problems is increasing, involving many actors. Although not directly focused on COVID-19, this project studies heavily underlying health issues of this pandemic such as unhealthy food consumption, lack of physical activity, air pollution and stress.

The aim of the project is to deliver a unique, creative and single training network for 15 early-stage researchers to co-create an understanding of the urban health system’s complexity, and co-design and apply adequate interventions in the system. The project will draw upon interactions between academic disciplines such as epidemiology, public health, and geography, and a wide range of entities such as medical centres, public authorities, and NGOs as well as citizens. Equipped with this expertise and supported by innovative training formats, such as Collaborative Learning in Practice, SURREAL trains the next generation of professionals in urban health.

To carry out this project, LISER, as coordinator, has joined forces with:
  • L’Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale INSERM (France)
  • University Medical Center Utrecht (Netherlands)
  • Hasselt University (Belgium)
  • Erasmus Medical Center (Netherlands)
  • University of Luxembourg (Luxembourg)
  • Tel Aviv University (Israel)
  • Barcelona Institute for Global Health ISGLOBAL (Spain)
  • Wageningen University & Research (Netherlands)
  • University of Tartu (Estonia)

This article was originally published on LISER’s website. To learn more about the SURREAL project:
Interview with Prof. Martin Dijst

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Contemporary History in Luxembourg: WARLUX project

More than 10,000 Luxembourgish women and men wore German uniforms during WWII in armed forces and civil organizations. WARLUX will collect their biographies and investigate their individual profiles from the perspective of their social background, trajectories during the war and their life in the post-war period.

The ongoing project WARLUX, run by the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) at the University of Luxembourg aims to study the biographies of young Luxembourgers, born between 1920 and 1927, who were drafted by the Nazi German authorities for the Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) and the German Army (Wehrmacht).

The conscription of young Luxembourgers is mostly recorded in official documents, including police files, enrolment registration records from regional authorities, transportation lists, and military records about their service. However, for the study of biographies a more personal window into the lives of the affected people is required, as behind these administrative files lay 10.000 life stories.

WARLUX project ©C²DH

Project Warlux

The focus of WARLUX is to analyse the evolution of experiences evoked by World War II from an actor-centred perspective and to re-evaluate the traditional categories of analysis by taking into account the multitude of war experiences and coping strategies of the people affected. This biographical focus will help to illuminate the individual experiences of soldiers, recruits, and women. In this regard, personal documents will constitute the core source for the overarching research question, including enlistment records, personal files of the German armed forces and the RAD, and ego-documents such as letters, diaries and autobiographies. Nevertheless, the project aims to collect the personal insights, voices, and subjective impressions of the affected people. How is it possible to gain insight into the personal and individual views of our objects of study? Their names are mostly known in memorials, lists and literature. Between year numbers and historical frameworks, biographies consist of much more, such as individual preferences, backgrounds, dislikes, characteristics, relationships to friends and family, etc. This is not readable from official documents and from lists and passports from the military service. To analyse their views, we need to dive deeper. What is left of their voices? Next to memoirs and oral history videos there are more sources to consider, the so-called “ego-documents” such as diaries and letters. Letters are a unique source and provide more information about individual fates than administrational documents.

If the letters are preserved they can provide insight into the stories of the affected people. The war was a major event for everyone in Luxembourg. This crucial epoch changed the lives of the entire country and robbed its citizens of their hopes and dreams. The letters and other ego- documents represent a slice of their fates, written from distant places, far away from home and loved ones, desperate, sad and scared.

What can these letters tell us, from an analytical and scientific point of view?

Families and friends were separated. The connection to home was only possible via letters and parcels, a communication network distributing news and greetings and signs of life. Nevertheless, the experiences distinguish themselves from each other in a crucial way. While the families at home had to think about food, logistics, and Nazi terror and switched into survival mode, the young men and women abroad suffered from homesickness and fear and the hope for the war’s end. The letters represented a bridge to the homeland. 

War letters and ego-documents in historical research

The analysis of letters is different than memoirs or administrative documents. Letters express the momentum of the experience of the event, emotions and thoughts. Memoirs written years or decades after the war can represent a distorted image of the true events but letters can show only a short glimpse in everyday life. One must also note that the content and the style of the document vary by its intended audience. A mother received a sign of life from her son (everything alright, I have enough to eat and I am doing fine), while letters addressed to a friend might include other storytelling about front life. It should be taken into consideration which information the writers wanted to tell the others – what was essential to them and what the other needs to know. 

The war letters were written under abnormal conditions. Some things remained unspoken; some senders incidentally integrated the horror of everyday war life into their letters only as a secondary matter. The reality of war is therefore not always reflected in these types of documents. Wartime correspondence differs clearly from ‘normal’ peacetime letters . In the case of military mailing service, transport times between 6 and 30 days can be assumed, provided that the shipment was not prevented at all due to an interruption of the postal service or loss. The conversation cannot take place immediately, but rather be “simulated in thought” by the writer, and more often than with correspondence in normal times, the transport route itself, the account of sending and receiving, will be the subject of the exchange. The time delay has an effect, especially in war with its rapid changes; a message can be out of date before it reaches the recipient. The awareness of this will influence the content of the letters. Nevertheless, the postal service provided a communication tool to stabilize personal relationships and to share news, emotions and experiences. 

These documents play a crucial part in research into individuals and their personal stories, although there are also limits to this analysis. Censors banned soldiers from revealing their position or giving details about combatants or units in case the documents were intercepted by the enemy. Next to official army regulations, the soldiers concealed certain facts or traumatic events either to avoid causing worry for their loved ones or because of the inability to express the horrors and the deaths they had to endure in battle. 

Letters offer a filtered and curated impression of the war experience but are nevertheless valuable for research about individual stories. 

Call for contributions

To extend the collection and to profit from these unique sources more documents are needed to conduct further research. 

Therefore a Call for Contributions from the public is carried out by the WARLUX team. Families and witnesses in Luxembourg are called on to share their memories and personal documents. WARLUX intends to find and identify personal documents, diaries, memories and photos which provide insight into individual experiences and stories during World War II. Families and witnesses are asked to look in their cellars and attics, in old boxes and cupboards from grandparents and parents to find documents and photographs about this period of time. 

The research team at the University of Luxembourg will (according to the agreement of the donors) scan it and store the documents properly. The families could send the documents to the University, or the researchers collect them themselves (in compliance with the hygiene measures). After digitising the documents (with the approval of the families), the team brings the originals back.

The letters and other ego-documents will be used for qualitative data analysis to add to our archive and to study the individual experiences of the researched generation. 

Download the call for contributions on C²DH’s website

To contribute and support the research of WARLUX, please contact the team via email, telephone or fax :

  • E-Mail:
  • Telephone + 352 46 66 44 9575                                     
  • Fax: +352 46 66 44 36702

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First Luxembourgish start-up winner of the World Summit Awards

For the first time ever, a Luxembourgish start-up is among the 40 winners of this international competition for promoting local digital innovation to improve society. The start-up LetzMath presented the programme Magrid, a math learning solution. 

Magrid is a language-neutral pedagogical programme for improving the development of early visual-spatial and mathematical abilities. The language-neutral property of Magrid removes the language barrier in learning math and provides equal educational opportunities to all learners, including the typically unserved population of second language learners, hearing impaired, and language disorders. All training tasks in Magrid have been developed in accordance with established developmental models of numerical cognition and further findings from empirical research on visuo-spatial and numerical development.

Tahereh Pazouki ©University of Luxembourg

Magrid was launched at the University of Luxembourg Incubator as the result of Tahereh Pazouki’s doctoral research project, supervised by professors Antoine Fischbach, Romain Martin, Christine Schiltz, Philipp Sonnleitner and Christoph Schommer at the University’s Luxembourg Centre for Educational Testing.

“My passion and my interest are in helping the unserved population,” says Tahereh. ”Our goal at Magrid was to create training programmes for children with special needs. At this point, Magrid could be used as a solution for students with language or hearing challenges but I am planning to further develop the programme to meet the needs of the dyslexic and autistic students as well”.

Tahereh’s application to WSA was one of 350 nominated projects from 182 countries and is now among 40 startups selected in 2020. The 40 winners, including Magrid, will meet at the WSA Global Congress in March to pitch their products. 

The WSA has been initiated in 2003 in the framework of the UN World Summit on the Information Society (UN WSIS). It contributes to the UN Sustainable Development Goals by recognising local digital content with an impact on society, demonstrating the richness and diversity of innovative applications.

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Better schooling to prevent dementia 70 years later

Anja Leist wants to find out how to resist the decline of our cognitive abilities in old age. Her international research has already achieved a first result: improving education helps prevent problems occurring decades later.

This article was originally published by the Luxembourg National Research Fund

Old age comes with physical and mental challenges, including cognitive decline, dementia and ailments such as Alzheimer, which have few, if no cures. What if we could do something about it in childhood? That is what Anja Leist believes, a public health professor at the University of Luxembourg.

“Sociological and psychological factors play a huge role in our cognitive reserve, meaning our capacity to resist the deterioration of our mental abilities,” explains Anja Leist. So far, scientists have identified factors explaining half of the differences observed in the population. A further 30% could be traced to factors such as education, social isolation, cardiovascular risk and midlife depression – much more than genetics, which accounts only for around 7%. “This is good news because they do represent huge potentials in terms of preventing the onset of decline later in life.”

Anja Leist © FNR / Rick Tonizzo
The burden of unequal education

The researcher and her colleagues found out that reduced access to education as a child decreases that individual’s cognitive reserve in later years, a result based on their analysis of a large survey made of more than 40 000 people in Europe.

The participants were followed over decades, providing information about their health, employment, family background and education, and performing tests every few years to measure their cognitive abilities such as memory or verbal fluency years. The international team looked for associations in the data, including country-level socioeconomic factors such as GDP, human development index or education inequalities.

“All these parameters are tightly intertwined. The goal of our research is to untangle them as much as possible. Our analysis revealed the importance of education: all other things being equal, cognitive reserve at greater age is lower in countries having larger inequalities of education opportunities. The latter measures how hard it is for children to attain a higher level of education when their parents had left school early.”

“Education inequalities can arise from subtle effects, including the unconscious biases we all have. In Luxembourg, for instance, parents indicate their profession on school documents. While this information has nothing to do with the actual performance of the children, it might still have an invisible influence on the way they are assessed.”

Higher risk for women

The effect of education on cognitive decline is, in fact, driven by one subgroup: women who left school early. Their cognitive decline at old age is greater for country showing greater educational inequality. Anja Leist stresses that the school attendance counts, and not only the opportunities school favours or hinders for the subsequent years:

“Of course, having a fulfilling job which stimulates our brain will increase our cognitive reserve over the years. But studies could disentangle the two factors. They compared states in the US which changed the obligatory school system, making it last longer. This did not really influence the type of employment which people had later, but one could observe an increase of cognitive reserve years later, showing that the length of education counts.”

These results suggest that increasing educational opportunities for children growing up in less educated families could represent a good investment in the future, as it would both reduce the burden for those affected and their families generated by dementia later and its substantial societal and economic costs.

Artificial intelligence meets sociology

But these massive population surveys have not yet revealed all their information. To study the data in more detail, Anja Leist is turning to machine learning, a technique of artificial intelligence often used to analyse Big Data.

“Our aim is to find out whether one intervention – such as encouraging fitness activities amongst middle-aged women – really does prevent dementia. In an ideal study, one would divide participants into two groups: the first one going to a fitness centre once a week, the other staying at home. While this would allow for a very clear comparison, it would be too unethical to be made in practice because it would prevent a healthier lifestyle bringing proven benefits in many health aspects.”

Leist’s idea is to use vast amounts of data to simulate such comparisons.

“We can use machine learning algorithms to identify within survey pairs of persons who are practically identical for all parameters such as age, education, profession, etc. except that one of them goes to the gym, the other not. This will allow us to make what we call a causal analysis and answer the question: what would have happened to the second person if they had behaved like the first one and had started going to the gym?”

Ultimately, such analyses could help identify which prevention measure has a higher impact on which population group and help target campaigns towards the population group at risk.

“So far, we have no convincing treatment against dementia,” says Anja Leist. “I believe any promising way to prevent it should be looked at – including building educational systems that give equal opportunities to children from all backgrounds.”

About the European Research Council (ERC) 

The European Research Council, set up by the EU in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between grantees’ pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.