Hope for Huntington’s from Fulbright research

A world-leading neuroscientist’s work treating brain diseases such as autism, dyslexia and schizophrenia is about to be adapted to see if it can help people with Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurodegenerativedisorder.

Computer-based exercises

Professor Michael Merzenich is a leading authority on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself. He has developed computer-based exercises that can retrain a person’s brain to overcome problems associated with disease. While his work is mostly centred on autism, dyslexia and schizophrenia, University of Waikato Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Melanie Cheung is keen to find out if this approach can also be used to help people with Huntington’s disease.

While it would be a stretch to say Merzenich uses computer games to stimulate changes within the brain, it’s not too far from the truth.

“When Merzenich and his team demonstrated that specially designed repeated functional input (using computer-based exercises) was able to rewire the brains of autistic children; it is was revolutionary in the field of neuroscience. So I am incredibly excited to be working with scientists of this calibre,” Dr Cheung, a neurobiologist, says.

Next Step

Dr Cheung – Ngāti Rangitihi, Te Arawa – has for several years been working with a Taranaki whanau living with Huntington’s disease and says her work with Merzenich is the next step in that project.

“Working with Indigenous communities means that you have to make progress at the right speed for them,” she says.

 “For the past six years our research group has been building relationships with  the Taranaki whanau and making sure that we are on the same page. They have recently signalled that they are ready to do some science together and are really excited about this project.”

The opportunity to work at Merzenich’s Brain Plasticity Institute in San Francisco for about six months became possible after Cheung received a Fulbright New Zealand Scholars Award.

Cognitive therapies

Dr Cheung says that specific parts of the brain degenerate in people with Huntington’s and that’s what causes a variety of disease symptoms such as involuntary movements, personality changes and problems with thinking.

“In our study we will be developing computer-based exercises that target structures and processes that are affected by Huntington’s disease.  We are interested to see if this approach can rewire the Huntington’s brain and slow neurodegeneration,” she says.

“Since computer-based cognitive therapies have never been used to treat Huntington’s disease; this is quite a radical treatment. We are hopeful that these new and exciting therapies will be effective, but we don’t want to give false hope. There is still a lot of work to do.”


Source: The University of Waikato

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