Understanding the brain is in all our interests

HUMAN beings have always wanted to explore the unknown.

We are fascinated by impenetrable wildernesses, deep oceans and distant planets.

But one of the least well understood things on this Earth or indeed anywhere is between our ears: the human brain. The European Commission has made this May European Month of the Brain to highlight the need for more research in the area.

But why should we try and understand more about our own brain? Firstly — and above all — because brain illness causes personal suffering: about 165 million European citizens are affected every year by some form of brain-related illness or disorder. To give just one example: today over seven million people in Europe are affected by dementia and this number is expected to double every 20 years. Dementia patients are faced with long-term debilitating and largely untreatable conditions.

Secondly, because of the socioeconomic costs and burden on our healthcare systems: The costs generated by brain disorders in the European Union reached almost €800bn in 2010 — a cost of €1.5m per minute. No doubt these numbers will grow in the near future with the ageing of the European population.

Many brain disorders are chronic and progressive diseases that require long-term treatment and are already posing a severe challenge to our healthcare systems.

Thirdly, because it can boost our economies: Unlocking the brain’s secrets could open up a whole new universe of products and services for our economies. A new EU-funded project, for example, will study how our eye’s retina receives visual information and how our brain then encodes it. This could be used for instance to develop better vehicle safety systems or navigation.

Finally, to advance our knowledge: The brain is our most complex organ and brain research is one of the ultimate frontiers in modern science. To cite Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health: “The human brain is the most complicated structure in the known universe.”

We might find out more about what makes us tick— our personalities, our desires, why we act in certain ways.

So we should be doing everything we can to research the brain, fight its diseases and unlock its secrets to make our lives better.

However, in the last few years some pharmaceutical companies have actually reduced their research activities because the development of drugs takes too long, is too expensive and too risky. So fewer drugs are developed at higher costs. We are also not doing enough to develop good brain research more generally to bring products and services to the market.

Part of the solution is more public funding for research and innovation, including at the European level. The EU budget has provided nearly €2bn for brain research since 2007. This includes some €400m for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and more than €750m for fundamental research to understand the brain’s functions and processes.

In Ireland, for example, the University of Limerick is leading a €5m EU project to develop a nano-scope to screen patients’ cells for Alzheimer’s.

At stake is not only a quick method of diagnosis but a huge market for medical technologies — an area where Ireland already has a strong footing.

Other projects across Europe are working on treatment options, for instance how to make new connections between nerve cells and repair or replace other connections in the brain, to treat Alzheimer’s but also strokes and brain and spinal injuries.

We are also working in partnership with pharmaceutical companies to speed up drug development through our Innovative Medicines Initiative. Brain research has benefited directly, in particular in the areas of research on schizophrenia, depression, chronic pain, Alzheimer’s and autism, where more than €100m has been committed.

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking so far has just been launched: Europe’s new Human Brain Project. The goal is to reconstruct the brain through supercomputer-based models and simulations — not only to apply this knowledge in medicine, but also to develop ground-breaking new technologies in computing and robotics.

With funding of up to €1bn over the next 10 years, this project will involve hundreds of European and international research institutes. It will also be complementary to a new brain mapping initiative announced by US President Obama recently, and I see Europe and the US working together on exploring this new frontier.

We have to collaborate across Europe and internationally on brain research, and we have to involve all important players. That means for instance patient organisations who can explain what it is really like to suffer a brain illness. We need industry, regulatory and funding agencies, representatives of healthcare systems and policy- makers, researchers and charity organisations all working on this.

That is the real trick — to unravel the mysteries of the human brain, we have to put our heads together.

* Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science

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