October 1, 2013
Taranaki Daily News
Staff Reporter

Neurobiologist Melanie Cheung has been working with a Taranaki whanau living with Huntington’s disease for six years.

She is heading to the United States to work with one of the world’s leading neuroscientists. While there she will see if his innovative computer-based work on people with autism, dyslexia and schizophrenia can be adapted to help those with Huntington’s.

Dr Cheung got the opportunity to work at Professor Michael Merzenich’s Brain Plasticity Institute in San Francisco when she received a Fulbright New Zealand Scholar Award.

She will be there for about six months.

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, Dr Cheung said.

“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.

“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.”

Prof Merzenich has developed computer-based exercises that can retrain a person’s brain to overcome problems associated with disease.

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

Her work with Prof Merzenich is the next step in her work with the Taranaki whanau.

“Working with indigenous communities means that you have to make progress at the right speed for them. 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.”