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Huntington’s disease

My Health and Care Research Wales Fellowship – One Year In!

11 October 2017
Dr Emma Yhnell and Rachel Smith at the British Science Festival promoting the neuroscience research of Cardiff University along with the ‘science seagull’.
Dr Emma Yhnell and Rachel Smith at the British Science Festival promoting the neuroscience research of Cardiff University along with the ‘science seagull’.

Brain Training Background

In September 2015, as I was writing up my PhD thesis and deciding what I wanted to do next, I was invited along to the Cardiff Huntington’s Disease Centre to meet families impacted by Huntington’s disease. My PhD focused on pre-clinical studies in relation to Huntington’s disease and some of the findings suggested that ‘brain training’ may modify disease symptoms in mouse models. After discussing these findings with Prof Monica Busse and Prof Anne Rosser, we decided that this was something that could potentially be pursued in the patient clinic.

‘Brain training’ had been used to demonstrate feasibility and efficacy in other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, however there was limited work in this area in the Huntington’s disease patient clinic. Therefore, an opportunity existed to determine if computer game brain training was feasible in the Huntington’s disease patient population.


I spent the next few months writing grant applications, and after several unsuccessful attempts, I was absolutely delighted to hear that I had been successful in obtaining fellowship funding for 3 years (October 2016 – October 2019) to explore the feasibility of completing computer game brain training for people and families impacted by Huntington’s disease.

Until I began my fellowship, my previous experience in clinical research was limited. I had observed in clinics and met patients and families impact by Huntington’s disease, although I had come from a PhD that was predominantly laboratory based. The main challenges during my first year have been making the transition from laboratory based PhD research to independent clinical research fellow.

Support From Centre for Trials Research

When I was developing my fellowship application, my fellowship mentor Prof Monica Busse suggested that I should include an advisory board from the Centre for Trials Research to allow me to develop my knowledge and understanding in clinical trials. Due to my lack of previous experience in clinical research, having the advisory board to support and advise me, particularly during study set up over the first year has been tremendously valuable. I meet with my advisory board monthly to talk through my fellowship, update them on progress and to ask for their advice and opinions. My advisory board is composed of people with broad expertise, from trials management to qualitative research and from statistics to information systems and database development. Receiving advisory support from the Centre for Trials Research during my fellowship has opened up many opportunities for me and also allowed me to meet a fantastic bunch of people. I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to my Centre for Trials Research advisory board and to everyone who has provided advice and support during the first year of my fellowship.

Alongside and complementary to my fellowship I have been able to study for a Postgraduate Certificate in clinic trials which is administered through a distance learning programme through the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Once complete, this will allow me to obtain formal accreditation of the new skills that I am learning.

First Year Highlights

The first year of my fellowship has absolutely flown by and I wanted to mention some particular highlights of events and activities that I have been involved in. I have a particular interest and passion in public engagement and Cardiff University offers numerous opportunities to get involved in public engagement and outreach activities. The annual Brain Games event returned to the National Museum of Wales, where over 3,700 visitors streamed through the doors to take part in brain-related games, activities and workshops. Along with Dr Emma Lane, we were ‘super stem cells’, running an interactive workshop teaching children about stem cells, with the help of sonic the hedgehog, a petri dish paddling pool and bubble gun neurons.

Dr Emma Lane and Dr Emma Yhnell are ‘super stem cells’ at Cardiff University’s annual Brain Games Event.

Rising Star

I was also delighted to be shortlisted in the Rising Star Category for Chwarae Teg’s Womenspire awards. The awards are designed to recognise recognises women for every aspect of life, from personal achievements to outstanding contribution. This provided a great opportunity to pause for breath and reflect on the achievements of my fellowship so far.

British Science Association

In September I was part of a team who went to the British Science Association Festival 2017 in Brighton to promote the neuroscience research that Cardiff University is doing. Along with Rachel Smith from the communications team in the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute. Together we ran a ‘splodge the brain’ activity to explain to children and families about the importance of different brain regions and what might happen if they go wrong. We had over 200 people visit the stand and even the local ‘science seagull’ was keen to take part in our activities.

The first year of my fellowship has certainly been busy, there has been lots to learn and many challenges to overcome. They say that nothing is worth doing if it is too easy! There have been ups and downs but reflecting on the first year of my fellowship, I have learnt a huge amount and I have really enjoyed it. Over the next year I will be pushing ahead with recruitment to my project and hoping that I continue to learn and develop my knowledge and expertise.

Thank You

Finally, I would like to end by saying a huge thank you to everyone at Centre for Trials Research who has supported me over the past year, it really is great to feel part of the Centre for Trials Research family. So here is to the second year of my fellowship, to another year of learning and progressing and to continuing my research to help people who are impacted by Huntington’s disease.