Have You Heard of Huntington’s Disease?

At science made simple, we are always eager to have guest bloggers featured on our website. This blog is written by Dr Emma Yhnell, a Health and Care Research Fellow in the School of Medicine at Cardiff University. She is working in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute, focusing on the use of brain training computer games to help people with Huntington’s Disease.If you would also like to be a guest blogger for our website, please contact us here


Have You Heard of Huntington’s Disease?

Dr Emma Yhnell and a giant brain!

Huntington’s disease awareness week runs from 14th – 20th May 2018. This week is about raising awareness and understanding of the disease.  I am a scientist conducting scientific research to try and help people and families who are affected by Huntington’s disease. I am trying to raise awareness of the disease, so that more people understand it.

What is Huntington’s disease?

Huntington’s disease is a relatively rare disease; it is known to affect about 1 in 10,000 people in the United Kingdom. It is a neurodegenerative disease. ‘Neuro’ means that it affects the brain and ‘degenerative’ means that unfortunately it gets worse over time and it stops parts of the brain working properly.

What causes Huntington’s disease?

Huntington’s disease is caused by a faulty gene. The gene has grown and expanded, which causes an abnormal, larger, or ‘mutant’ protein to form. The fact that the disease is caused by a single faulty gene is really rare. Often your chances of developing certain diseases may increase if you have certain genes, but in the case of Huntington’s disease, if you have the faulty gene you will go on to develop Huntington’s disease. If you carry the faulty gene, there is a 50% chance that you might pass the disease causing gene on to your children.

What symptoms does Huntington’s disease cause?

You might have heard Huntington’s disease referred to as Huntington’s chorea. The word ‘chorea’ comes from the Ancient Greek, meaning to dance, that is because of the jerking and shaking movements cause as the disease progresses.

However, there are also a range of thinking problems that happen early on in the disease, often before the movement problems. All of these symptoms often start at around about middle age, when people might be in their 40’s. But in some rare cases people show these symptoms earlier if they have juvenile Huntington’s disease.

Training your brain

My research looks at whether people and families impacted by Huntington’s disease are able to complete computer game brain training and whether it might prevent the disease from getting worse.

There are lots of different ways that you can train your brain. A bit like going to the gym and training your muscles by lifting weights, you can train your brain by regularly practicing certain tasks. Whether you are a fan or Sudoku or crosswords, if you do something over and over again, with practice you will probably get better at it. The same is true with computer games. Normally brain training computer games are specially designed to train the brain in a way that other games that are designed for enjoyment and entertainment are not. Any computer games that are designed to train the brain have to be scientifically studied before they can claim that they work.

My study is a feasibility study. Before we go on to run a big study that looks to conclusively see if the brain training computer games have any sort of impact for people and families who are living with Huntington’s disease, we need to see if it is feasible to do this type of research.

Something that I am really interested in is if any friends, family or carers play a part or help people play the brain training computer games. We don’t want to burden people who are already really busy and we want to make sure that the people who are given the brain training games play them by themselves without any cheating or too much help from other people. I am also interested whether people are confident in using computers themselves and whether they like or dislike playing these computer games.

We are testing the idea that playing these computer games might slow the disease progression for people with Huntington’s disease.

At the moment there are lots of research studies going on that look to better understand the disease and at potential treatments for it. It is a really exciting time to be involved in Huntington’s disease research. I love being a research scientist, I get to answer lots of interesting questions and it is great that my work has the potential to make a real difference to patients and family members.

For more information on the latest information on Huntington’s disease research visit HDBuzz.

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