Skip to main content

Brain-training computer games to combat Huntington’s disease

2 March 2016

images of brain as scanned by MRI machine

University researchers to present their work to Parliament

A scientist whose research uses computer games to ‘train the brain’ and improve thinking and movement in Huntington’s disease is to present her work to Parliament.

Around 12,000 people in England and Wales live with Huntington’s disease. It becomes progressively worse over time and can affect movement, cognition and behaviour. There is no cure for the disease. If you have the condition, there is a 50% chance that you will pass it on to your children.

Dr Emma Yhnell, 25, a research associate from Cardiff, will attend Parliament to present to a range of politicians and experts her novel approach to combating the condition, as part of SET for Britain on Monday 7 March.

Her research on using computer games to ‘train the brain’ in Huntington’s disease will be judged against dozens of other scientists’ research in the only national competition of its kind.

Huntington’s disease is a hereditary disorder of the brain and central nervous system that affects mood, thinking and movement. By ‘training their brains’ with specially designed computer games, Emma hopes that people with Huntington’s disease might be able to improve their thinking skills or even regain some control of their muscular movement.

Dr Yhnell’s work was shortlisted from hundreds of applicants to appear in Parliament.

On presenting her research in Parliament, she said: “I applied to take part in SET for Britain as I really enjoy communicating science and research to the public in fun, engaging and imaginative ways. What better place to talk about science and research than in the Houses of Parliament.

“Although my research is focused on Huntington’s disease, using games to train the brain can also be helpful in other diseases and in healthy people who want to keep their brains fit and healthy.  I hope that I will get to talk to a range of people about my research and get them to have a go at the brain training games.”

Stephen Metcalfe MP, Chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, said:

“This annual competition is an important date in the parliamentary calendar because it gives MPs an opportunity to speak to a wide range of the country’s best young researchers.

“These early career engineers, mathematicians and scientists are the architects of our future and SET for Britain is politicians’ best opportunity to meet them and understand their work.”

Dr Yhnell’s research has been entered into the Biological and Biomedical Sciences session of the competition, which will end in a gold, silver and bronze prize-giving ceremony.

Notable cases of the people who have Huntington’s disease include Olympic rower and medalist, Sarah Winckless; NBC war correspondent, Charles Sabine; and the late folk musician, Woody Guthrie.

Judged by leading academics, the gold medalist receives £3,000, while silver and bronze receive £2,000 and £1,000 respectively.

Other researchers from the University will also be presenting their work to Parliament.

Lorena Hidalgo San Jose, a PhD student at Cardiff University’s School of Engineering, is developing very small microcapsules containing stem cells, with the overall aim of introducing the encapsulated cells into the injured spinal cords of patients suffering from paralysis.

Stem cells have the ability to transform into any cell type, and could there be used to regenerate damaged tissue and treat a range of illnesses from diabetes to heart disease.

By encapsulating the cells into tiny structures before implantation, it reduces the chances of the patient’s immune system rejecting the stem cells, whilst at the same time allowing the practitioner to control the proliferation, migration, integration and differentiation of the cells.

Around 50,000 people live with paralysis in the UK and Ireland, with no effective treatments currently available.

Dr Heungjae Choi, from the School of Engineering, is researching ways in which sufferers of diabetes could potentially monitor their blood glucose levels without obtaining blood.

Dr Choi is looking to develop a non-invasive sensor that could observe the interaction between low-power electromagnetic waves excited on the skin and the fluids in the human body.

There are currently four million people living with diabetes in the UK, with current estimates suggesting that a further one million people will develop the disease by 2025.

The Parliamentary and Scientific Committee runs the event in collaboration with the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, The Physiological Society and the Council for Mathematical Sciences, with financial support from Essar, the Clay Mathematics Institute, Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), the Institute of Biomedical Science, the Bank of England and the Society of Chemical Industry.

Share this story