Huntington's disease—how brain training games could help

July 9, 2018 by Emma Yhnell, The Conversation
Credit: Lia Koltyrina/Shutterstock

In the search for new treatments, science often focuses on medication first. But drugs aren't the only way to fight illness, particularly when looking at brain diseases. My research looks into how playing specially designed computer games might help people who are living with Huntington's disease.

Huntington's is a disorder that gets progressively worse over time, leading to problems with movement and thinking. We know that the is caused by a single faulty gene, which in itself is very unique. Often if you have particular genes, your risk of developing certain diseases might increase or decrease, but it is very rare for a disease to be caused completely by a single gene. Although research is currently ongoing, unfortunately at present there are no treatments for the underlying cause of Huntington's, or to prevent the disease getting worse.

You might be wondering how brain training games can possibly help those with Huntington's disease if there aren't yet any effective treatments for the disease. But, as my mum always used to say to me, "practice makes perfect" – if you practice something repeatedly you will generally get better at it.

This principle applies to brain training, too. If you practice tasks or games that are designed to help with thinking, you will probably get better at thinking. This is sometimes referred to as the "use it or lose it" approach. If you use your thinking skills and keep them active, you will probably be able to maintain them. But if you don't practice something regularly you may forget it and not be as good at it as you once were. This is particularly relevant if you know that your thinking ability is going to get worse.

Using computer games to train the brain has been studied in the healthy ageing population, and also with other diseases which affect the brain such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. These studies have generally found that brain training is beneficial for improving thinking – although there is much debate about whether brain training could improve movement problems or improve quality of life for living with these brain diseases.

At present, there is very little evidence about computer training and how it might impact people with Huntington's disease. But we are now conducting a feasability study to work out whether the research can actually be done before progressing to a bigger study. Full scale studies require lots of participants and funding, so it is important to demonstrate that the research can actually work with a small number of people first.

Using this initial study, we want to demonstrate that computer game brain training is acceptable for people who are impacted by Huntington's disease. We know that lack of motivation and apathy can be characteristic symptoms of Huntington's disease. So we are asking people who have the disease to play brain training computer games to see how they get on.

Half of the participants will be asked to play the brain training computer games and half will continue as normal, in a control group. This is important as it will allow us to compare the results of the people who played the brain training games to those who did not. We are asking the participants playing the brain training games to play them for three 30-minute sessions a week, for 12 weeks. We will then be asking them how they got on with playing the games and what they liked and disliked so that we can improve the study in the future.

Not all games marketed as brain training are equal – most are designed to specifically test or train your thinking skills but some are designed purely for entertainment and pleasure. So we have carefully chosen the games our participants will play to make sure that the games specifically train thinking skills. The brain training games that we are using are focused on training thinking skills of executive function – the higher of the brain. These include number puzzles, word games and tasks that measure attention.

Although our study is focused on Huntington's disease, it will help us learn about more generally, too. We already know that the more often you play a game, the better you get at it. If you play the card game Snap!, for example, you might get much quicker at pairing the cards and beating your opponent, but how does this translate to the rest of your life?

Brain will not be able to change the faulty gene that causes Huntington's, but it might just help improve day to day life for people who are impacted by the disease.

For further information about Huntington's disease and support, visit The Huntington's disease association, or HDBuzz, which provides excellent summaries of current Huntington's research.

Explore further: Researchers find important new piece in the Huntington's disease puzzle

Related Stories

Researchers find important new piece in the Huntington's disease puzzle

June 21, 2018
In a new study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have discovered a hitherto unknown error in the transport of glutamine between astrocytes and neurons in the brain of mice with Huntington's disease. At the same ...

New links between genetic abnormality and brain function in Huntington's disease

March 21, 2018
While the gene mutation that causes Huntington's disease has been associated with changes in certain types of functional brain connectivity, a new study that examined connectivity across the whole brain has now identified ...

Genre may impact cognitive training using video games

October 3, 2017
Video games are quickly becoming a hot topic in cognitive training. Many see them as a potential tool to help patients improve their performance and memory, yet little is known about how different types of video games may ...

Teaching an old brain new tricks

July 26, 2017
(HealthDay)—You might pride yourself on your ability to multitask. But research shows that brain health may suffer when multitasking involves many gadgets, such as surfing the web or playing a video game on your phone while ...

Synthetic oil drug may bring promise for Huntington's disease

January 7, 2015
An early study suggests that a synthetic triglyceride oil called triheptanoin may provide hope for people with Huntington's disease. The study is published in the January 7, 2015, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal ...

Brain training can help in fight against dementia: Meta-analysis

November 14, 2016
Researchers at the University of Sydney have found that engaging in computer-based brain training can improve memory and mood in older adults with mild cognitive impairment - but training is no longer effective once a dementia ...

Recommended for you

New brain imaging research shows that when we expect something to hurt it does, even if the stimulus isn't so painful

November 14, 2018
Expect a shot to hurt and it probably will, even if the needle poke isn't really so painful. Brace for a second shot and you'll likely flinch again, even though—second time around—you should know better.

New clues to the origin and progression of multiple sclerosis

November 13, 2018
Mapping of a certain group of cells, known as oligodendrocytes, in the central nervous system of a mouse model of multiple sclerosis (MS), shows that they might have a significant role in the development of the disease. The ...

Mutations, CRISPR, and the biology behind movement disorders

November 12, 2018
Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science (CBS) in Japan have discovered how mutations related to a group of movement disorders produce their effects. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the ...

In live brain function, researchers are finally seeing red

November 12, 2018
For years, green has been the most reliable hue for live brain imaging, but after using a new high-throughput screening method, researchers at the John B. Pierce Laboratory and the Yale School of Medicine, together with collaborators ...

Concussion tied to suicide risk

November 12, 2018
(HealthDay)—People who have experienced either a concussion or a mild traumatic brain injury are twice as likely to commit suicide than others, a new review suggests.

Autism is associated with zinc deficiency in early development—now a study links the two

November 9, 2018
The emergence of autism in children has not only been linked to genes encoding synaptic proteins—among others—but also environmental insults such as zinc deficiency. Although it is unclear whether zinc deficiency contributes ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.