People: John Lowe, Alan Wilson

The challenge

Huntington's Disease (HD) is an incurable neurodegenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and some cognitive functions in humans. The SML investigates locomotion, social behaviour, and collective cognition in a transgenic sheep model of Huntington’s disease.

Our work in collaboration with UCL Computer Science on the sheep model of HD feeds into a larger CHDI funded project led by Professor Jenny MortonDept of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge that is focused on studying the behavioural deficits and pathology associated with HD and interventions to slow or prevent the progression of the disease. Field work is carried out in Australia, with the South Australian Research Development Institute (SARDI).

Our approach

To understand how HD alters a sheep’s locomotion (Picture 1: a locomotion test), patterns of social interaction (Picture 2: sociogram of interactions), and contribution to the dynamics of flocking behaviour (Picture 3: sheep flocking), we search for subtle differences between HD sheep and ‘normal’ control sheep across these different contexts. This enables us to pinpoint the onset, and document the progression of, HD. Ultimately this will inform us on how we can slow the progression, or delay the onset, of the disease. More broadly, our results also have important implications to fields of animal behaviour, radio localisation, and automation of social behaviour assessment.

Our tools

We use a combination of modelling, field observations and experiments and a variety of high-tech kit to collect the data used in our research. This includes 3D motion capture and high definition video (for locomotion analyses: see video 1), GPS and radio localisation from on-board data-loggers (for activity and social analyses: see video 2) and information obtained from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs: an image from one of our UAVs is shown to the right hand side: see video 3).

Our results

The findings of this research will not only be of interest to the pharmacology and medical world, but will answer fundamental  questions concerning the evolution and maintenance of social behaviour, using an archetypal social vertebrate as a model system. These more broad findings will be important to fields of animal behaviour, radio localisation, and automation of social behaviour assessment. Check back here for research outputs as they become available.

For more information about this project, contact Alan Wilson, Professor of Locomotor Biomechanics

We acknowledge the generous support of CHDI in funding this work, and our thanks go to the South Australian Research Development Institute (SARDI) for their support with our field work.

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