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Understanding The Brain 2020

The silent emergency of brain disorders

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Frédéric Destrebecq

Executive Director, European Brain Council

The human brain is immensely complex. It is the control centre of our bodies, directly affecting every vital function, ranging from our heartbeats, breathing, food and fluid intake, sleep, emotions and sex.

A healthy brain is the ultimate prerequisite for quality of life and sustainable well-being. 2014 figures indicate that 179 million Europeans live with disorders of the brain. These include both mental and neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, migraine, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and addiction.

45 million of these cases are in the UK[1] alone. Worryingly, these numbers are increasing steadily.

These statistics, coupled with the estimated yearly cost for management of these diseases (€800 billion[2] or an estimated £670 billion), make the immensity of the problem quite clear.

The latest figures from the UK – published in 2010 – put the cost of brain disorders for the country at €134 billion (£112 billion) per annum. Addressing these major human and financial costs for society requires an intensified research effort and the creation of novel solutions.

However, disorders of the brain and the need for investment into brain research lack the awareness and recognition they are due.

The brain mission

With an aging population in Europe, the prevalence of the most common neurological and psychiatric disorders will dramatically increase and we are still striving to find cures or truly effective means of delaying or reducing the burden they place on individuals and society.  

It is evident that understanding the brain is a mission on its own. Though commitment to basic neuroscience research has advanced our understanding of the nervous system – as well as the practical and clinical application of this knowledge – the inherent complexity of the nervous system has hampered our translational capacity.

This suggests a higher level of understanding is required to efficiently cure brain disorders. Sustained funding is necessary to expand and boost brain research in Europe.

Investing for the future

Timelines for developing medicines and devices required to treat central nervous system (CNS) conditions alone can take up to 18 years[3] (compared to the average 12 years[4] for other drug pipelines).

Decision-makers need to take further steps to improve treatment development by creating an innovation-friendly environment and sustain scientific breakthroughs in the field of brain disorders.

Unprecedented innovation in technology and medical processes is rapidly revolutionising our day-to-day living. Over recent decades, various technologies have emerged that hold the promise of dramatically reshaping the way we deliver healthcare.

Research plays a heavy role in this process, without which progress would be stalled. In business, we look at investment as a means for future capabilities, such as new products, processes, and services. In health research, steady and proportional support is an investment for future capabilities of detection, treatment and life-saving, life-changing tools.

It is clear that we need this situation to change. We need to improve the lives of people living with these life-disrupting disorders. We need robust research, improved care and a society that prioritises the health and wellbeing of all its citizens.

The silent emergency of brain disorders can no longer be allowed to thrive under the radar, as an unbeknownst burden to our societies and to the lives of fellow citizens.

[1] The size, burden and cost of disorders of the brain in the UK; Naomi A Fineberg, Peter M Haddad, Lewis Carpenter, Brenda Gannon, Rachel Sharpe, Allan H Young, Eileen Joyce, James Rowe, David Wellsted, David J Nutt, Barbara J Sahakian; J Psychopharmacol. 2013 Sep; 27(9): 761–770. doi: 10.1177/0269881113495118 [2] DiLuca, M. & Olesen, J. The Cost of Brain Diseases: A Burden or a Challenge? Neuron 82, 1205–1208 (2014) [3] Mohs, R. C. & Greig, N. H. Drug discovery and development: Role of basic biological research. Alzheimer’s Dement. (New York, N. Y.) 3, 651–657 (2017) [4] Torjesen, I. Drug development: the journey of a medicine from lab to shelf | Career Feature | Pharmaceutical Journal (Accessed: 26th February 2019)

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