Brain Sciences


UCL and Osaka University collaborate to treat social impairment in dementia

Researchers from UCL and Osaka University in Japan are working together to develop effective treatments to help people with dementia function better socially.


Researchers from UCL and Osaka University in Japan are working together to develop effective treatments to help people with dementia function better socially.

Dementia can cause profound changes in a person’s social functioning and relationships, which is frequently very distressing for those with the condition and their families. As the condition progresses, people spend less time in social settings and have difficulties communicating with others when they do socialise.

There are currently no recommended treatments for this aspect of dementia and little evidence of what support is effective. The researchers are hoping to change this.

Dr Andrew Sommerlad, Professor Gill Livingston and Hannah Chapman (all UCL Psychiatry) are bringing together their expertise in the social and behavioural effects of dementia to collaborate with academics and clinicians at Osaka University in Japan. As countries with different cultures and histories, the comparisons between Japan and UK populations are particularly useful when investigating the broader social context of dementia.

Dr Sommerlad explains that social changes can be more distressing to people with dementia and their families than memory loss, and yet there has been little research in this area. He and the team are collecting information from people with the condition to find out more about how their symptoms affect daily life, using an English and Japanese version of the Social Functioning in Dementia Scale.

By improving our knowledge of how people experience social functioning impairment, the researchers hope to be able to develop – and test – different types of support.

One area of interest is new technologies that could help people to connect with others. In Japan, humanoid robotics have been used to support elderly people with dementia. In the UK, the Alzheimer’s Society reported on a humanoid dementia-friendly robot that ran popular reminiscence sessions with dementia patients. By providing a social interface, assistive technology like this could potentially help improve cognition and reduce loneliness.

Robot image

The researchers are also investigating whether other types of support, such as cognitive training used in autism and traumatic brain injury, could be adapted for people with dementia.

The partnership with Osaka, which is supported by joint funding from the two universities, originally developed when UCL hosted a visit from Japanese academics in 2019. UCL has an established history with Japan, with the Chōshū Five, the first Japanese students to study abroad, coming to study at the university nearly 160 years ago.

Dr Sommerlad points out that an advantage of the collaboration is being able understand the similarities and differences of neurodegenerative conditions – and to explore the reasons for this. For example, the team at UCL focus particularly on Alzheimer’s disease, whereas the team at Osaka have great experience in Lewy body dementia.

So, what does the future hold? The researchers are expanding their collaborations within both UCL and Osaka, and developing further integrated research proposals on different aspects of dementia prevention, treatment and care.

Dr Sommerlad said:

“Through this collaboration, we hope to contribute to the knowledge base underpinning policies supporting people living with dementia.

Dementia is a priority research area at UCL and in Japan, and being able to compare country-specific data and contexts will provide valuable insights into what type of support works. The project will fill a gap in our current knowledge of this area, and will hopefully enable us to make a real difference to people’s lives.”

Osaka group

Robot photo by Alex Knight