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Dr Emma Yhnell to lead a study into computer-based cognitive training for people with Huntington’s disease

Dr Emma Yhnell has been awarded a three-year Health and Care Research Wales Fellowship to investigate a possible therapeutic intervention for people with Huntington’s disease.

Dr Yhnell’s study will be the first to use computer-based cognitive training for people with Huntington’s disease.

A hereditary brain condition affecting movement and thinking, Huntington’s disease can leave people feeling isolated, lonely and in need of extra care. Dr Yhnell, who is based at the University’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute, is aiming to establish whether computer games can be tailored for individuals with HD, in turn improving their thinking skills.

Although in the past, brain games have been used in other brain diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, this will be a first for studies in people with Huntington’s disease. Dr Yhnell said:

“Using computer game brain training for people with Huntington’s disease has not been done before. Based on pre-clinical work and research into other brain diseases we think that computer game brain training has the potential to be beneficial in Huntington’s disease, but we have to test this to be sure.”

Participants in the study will be using a cognitive training software called HAPPYneuron. At the beginning of the study, participants will be asked to complete a series of tasks which test their memory and attention to determine any specific cognitive impairments. Following this initial assessment, a programme of computer tasks will then be designed and personalised for each participant, with the aim of improving their specific cognitive impairments.

Emma’s research focuses on Huntington’s disease and improving the lives of those affected by it.

For 12 weeks, participants will complete their personalised HAPPYneuron programme of computer games in their own homes, supported by home visits and email/telephone reminders. Once completed, tests of motor and cognitive skills will be used to determine any benefit of the cognitive training intervention.

“Being able to complete the brain training computer games at home is really important as having multiple research visits can be inconvenient and tiring for research participants,” said Dr Yhnell. “Completing the brain training at home means that only a small number of research visits are necessary.”

With hopes to bring the brain training computer games not only to the annual HD Open morning at Cardiff’s HD Centre but also to Cardiff University’s annual ‘Brain Games’ at Cardiff Museum, Dr Yhnell wants to present this research both to the HD community and the general public. She also aims to visit local schools and colleges in her role as a Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) ambassador.

“Public engagement and involvement in science research is absolutely vital,” said Dr Yhnell.

“Increasing awareness and understanding of Huntington’s disease is something that I am particularly passionate about as this is a relatively rare but devastating disease.”