Mysteries of the Mind

How researching Huntington’s Disease is also helping us to grasp the incredible scale of complexity of the human brain.
23 December 2013

Interview with 

Professor Richard Faull, Auckland University


Brain cartoon


Next month, we'll be continuing our quest with Huntington's disease.  We'll be finding out about other approaches that are being used to help find the treatment, how a bank of frozen human brains is acting as a reference library for the disorder, and how scientists are creating human brain circuits in a dish in order to piece together the jigsaw of the disease.  Distangle the myriad of symptoms of Huntington's disease and unravel the plethora of possible causes.

We close this month's show with the man who setup this centre of research in Auckland to find out how research Huntington's disease is also helping us to grasp the incredible scale of complexity of the human brain.

Richard -   I'm Richard Faull.  I'm a distinguished professor at the University of Auckland.  I'm the Director of the Centre for Brain Research and I've spent an incredible life working on the human brain.  

The one thing I would say is, what I have learned, I have learned to be humble, and I've learned to know that it's almost impossible for the human brain to solve the human brain.  We really need a super brain to do that and that's the greatest challenge in life.  So, Huntington's disease was generally thought to be a simple disease because it was caused by one gene.  And why there has been so much attention on this gene scientifically on this disease was a simple idea that if we could solve this disease by working out what this one-gene defect caused, then we could solve diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and motor neuron disease which were multiple gene diseases.  

Well, it just so happens that we now know that this single-gene disease, Huntington's disease is a very complicated disease because it actually causes dysregulation and upset of at least a quarter of all the genes.  We have 45,000 genes in each cell.  Depending on what part of the brain it is will upset, different combinations of these other genes.  That's why you get all the different symptoms.  And so, genetics is a very complex science now.  We thought it was a simple science when I was at school and that this gene would do just one thing.  It doesn't.  The gene makes a protein.  That protein interacts with other genes and causes then to change their function or change the pattern of protein production.  So, there is a sort of an effect which spreads like wild fire in variable ways and the variation is affected by the environment.  And so, we know that people in different environments, even with the same gene will result in different patterns of brain degeneration and symptoms.  

Huntington's disease has taught us the fundamental principles and that the human brain is more complex than what we ever, ever imagined.  We can't explain human thought.  We can't explain why the sudden burst of genius is.  We're beginning to unravel it, but it's almost as if we climbed to the top of Mt. Everest, thinking we're going to solve this disease and then we see all the Himalayas before us which are even higher.  That's the challenge of doing brain research.  it's going to be several lifetimes of work to unravel the human brain.  This disease has actually led us along that path.

Hannah -   And that's all we have time for.  See you next month to continue the journey to open our minds.  Thanks to Richard Faull, Richard Price, Lynette Tippett, Russell Snell, Jenny Morton, and Ailsa McGregor.  You can find the full transcript for this episode and others in the series at  If you have any questions or comments then to get in touch at or you can find the Naked Scientists at Facebook and Twitter.


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