Digging into the thinking side of movement disorders

RESEARCH LIVES: Colm Peelo, PhD candidate at TCD and Beaumont Hospital

Colm Peelo: ‘I think the pandemic has suited me in some ways, because my preference is to be outdoors, going hiking, running and playing sports and doing adventure races.’

Colm Peelo: ‘I think the pandemic has suited me in some ways, because my preference is to be outdoors, going hiking, running and playing sports and doing adventure races.’

 

You research neurodegenerative diseases, particularly motor neurone disease (MND) and Huntington’s disease (HD). What do you wish people knew more about these conditions?

I think maybe people don’t appreciate the cognitive, or thinking-related, issues that can arise with these diseases.

What do you mean by cognitive issues?

MND and HD are classically motor or movement disorders, where you can see the person’s issues with controlling movement – maybe they can’t move part of their body, as in MND, or they move too much, as in HD. But the diseases can also be linked with cognitive dysfunction.

The person may think or recall things more slowly, or their ability to “read” other people in social situations could be reduced. These cognitive changes can have a huge impact on a person’s day-to-day life. In some cases, there might also be subtle cognitive changes many years before the person is diagnosed with the movement disorder, and that’s what my project is looking at.

What is the focus of your research?

We are looking to see if there are early and subtle cognitive changes, such as the speed of information processing, verbal fluency and being able to understand social information, which might be related to genetics.

We do that by working with people with the conditions and with their families. The cognitive aspect of MND and HD has become more recognised in recent years, and the more we understand it, the better we can support people to manage it.

How did you become interested in this blend of psychology and biology and clinical research?

In school I loved chemistry and physics, and I was also interested in how people’s minds and brains worked. So I studied biology, chemistry and psychology at Maynooth university. That was my first time studying biology and it blew my mind – I loved it.

After that, I did a master’s degree in clinical neuroscience in London, and that’s where I started to learn about Huntington’s. When I came home to Dublin, I got a post as a research assistant at Beaumont, and from that I was offered a PhD position funded by Research Motor Neurone and the Huntington’s Disease Association of Ireland.

How are you finding doing a PhD?

I’m about a year and a half in now. I feel very lucky to be part of a big team of different disciplines under Prof Orla Hardiman and Prof Niall Pender. Doing a PhD can be tough, but it’s exciting, and the variety of opportunities to explore keep me going. I particularly love working with patients in the hospital.

And how do you take a break from your research?

I think the pandemic has suited me in some ways, because my preference is to be outdoors, going hiking, running and playing sports and doing adventure races. I really love surfing, which is hard to do when you are in Dublin, but I hope to buy myself a new surfboard this year and spend more time using it on the west coast of Ireland.

You can follow Colm on Twitter at @ColmGPeelo

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