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A new 21st century stewardship for brain health

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Brad Herbert

Interim CEO, Healthy Brains Global Initiative

To substantially improve the lives of those with mental and neurological health conditions, we must rethink how we conduct and fund brain health research.

A global health crisis

Throughout our lifetime, one in every four people1 will suffer from a mental health condition and one in every three2 will experience a neurological condition. Overall, brain health conditions – including mental and neurological health disorders – compose 10% of the Global Burden of Disease3, showing that these illnesses are both severe and highly prevalent.

Even if we all could receive the best available treatments, less than a quarter of the total disease burden would be averted. To make a meaningful impact, we need to develop effective ways of preventing and treating brain health conditions. This requires more – and better – research.

Increasing the financial envelope

Every year, mental health and neurological conditions cost the global economy more than USD 4 trillion4. Given the economic impacts, brain health research is underfunded. To address the unmet need, the financial envelope for brain research needs to increase. We need a movement gathering all stakeholders, from people with lived experience, to scientists, from policymakers to legislators, to collectively demand the resources required for doing more and better brain health research.

21st century research: a new model of brain health science

Despite scientific advances, we still have a limited understanding of the brain’s complexity. We do not fully understand what causes or alleviates many brain health conditions, meaning we must rethink how we do research.

First, we need to consider the brain in its full context. We must gather a wide variety of data, considering both biological and social factors as well as comorbidities, and unite researchers from many disciplines to challenge existing disease classifications and to understand how brain health conditions develop and progress.

We must also undertake global research that generates truly global solutions. The impacts of brain health conditions disproportionately affect marginalized groups, yet most research is conducted by and in homogeneous populations living in high-resource settings. We can benefit from technological advances to create global cohorts of unprecedented scale to compare data across regions and populations.

In addition, our research must be grounded in the perspectives of people living with these conditions. Their expertise by experience will ensure that diagnostic categories reflect the needs of lived experience and that scientific discoveries are linked to real-life human impacts.

Finally, underpinning these points is an understanding that brain health research should be equity-oriented and rights-based. To improve people’s lives, brain health science must reflect that brain health is a human right.

Brad Herbert is the Interim CEO of the Healthy Brains Global Initiative (HBGI), a nonprofit that aims to raise USD10 billion to facilitate a new global, collaborative model of brain health research. Check out HBGI on TwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram.

[1] Figure from IAMHRF – https://digitalscience.figshare.com/articles/report/The_Inequities_of_Mental_Health_Research_IAMHRF_/13055897
[2] Figure from Media Planet – https://issuu.com/mediaplanetuk/docs/neurology
[3] Figure from GBD Results Tool – http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-results-tool
[4] This figure includes both direct and indirect mental and neurological conditions. Figures compiled from Wiley Online Library – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ana.24897; the World Economic Forum September 2011, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Harvard_HE_GlobalEconomicBurdenNonCommunicableDiseases_2011.pdf and the Global Mental Health Action Network, June 2021, https://drive.google.com/file/d/11U2k0E2EIDarSLYcpmn-aqZUa5EDnVRv/view

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