Scientific Foresight (STOA) By / April 4, 2016

Do we know enough about our brain?

Written by Sarah McCormack and Nera Kuljanic, Brain disorders cost Europe nearly 800 billion euro a year, which is far…

© Shutterstock / Enfant Terrible

Written by Sarah McCormack and Nera Kuljanic,

Brain disorders cost Europe nearly 800 billion euro a year, which is far greater than the cost resulting from cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes combined. On 15 March 2016 the EP’s Science and Technology Options Assessment (STOA) Panel hosted a workshop in conjunction with the DANA Foundation in the context of the Brain Awareness Week (14-20 March 2016), an ongoing annual campaign promoting better understanding of the brain. The event brought together some of the leading European minds in neuroscience research. The DANA Foundation promotes brain awareness through partnering with organisations worldwide and organising wide-ranging activities, from classroom workshops, social media campaigns and open days at neuroscience labs. This workshop was chaired by Paul Rübig, STOA Chair, and moderated by Marina Bentivoglio, from the Department of Neuroscience, University of Verona.

Europe’s key role in neuroscience research

The keynote speaker, Richard Morris, from the University of Edinburgh, examined the rich tradition of neuroscience research carried out in Europe and worldwide by Europeans, as illustrated by the celebrated examples of the work of Alois Alzheimer, Alan Lloyd Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley. The work of European neuroscientists has led to the development of key insights in neuroscience.

It is estimated that 47 million people worldwideuffer from dementia and this number is only expected to increase in the future, especially in low and middle-income countries. Referring to their recent publication, Bengt Winblad and Angel Cedazo-Minguez from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden said that Alzheimer’s disease is a quiet epidemic, which requires urgent action. Their forward-looking recommendations for European policy-makers included developing EU guidelines for the provision of dementia care and the standardisation of biomarkers for research and clinical practice.

Better research is needed

Within research, raw data often goes missing, roughly 30% of graphs are ambiguous and a large number of trials give inadequate treatment descriptions, said Niall Boyce from The Lancet Psychiatry. So what could be done to improve the capability and capacity of the authors and reviewers? He explained that The Lancet has introduced a REWARD (REduce research Waste And Reward Diligence) campaign to promote and highlight well conducted research with minimal waste of resources, aiming for valid, credible and relevant outcomes.

Cerebral palsy, a movement and motor disorder appearing in early childhood, is another brain disorder plaguing Europe. Bernard Dan, from the European Academy of Childhood Disability, said that better research was needed for more targeted treatment and better training of clinicians in childhood brain disorders.

Mental disorders are some of the greatest challenges facing European society today. There is a link between the economic crisis and an increase in mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. Mara Dierssen, from the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, explained that an issue at the moment is that large companies have started to downsize their neuroscience research divisions and the number of drugs developed has halved in the last decade. She called for more funding in this field, as it would benefit society as a whole through greater understanding and better treatment of brain disorders.

What next?

In the discussion session after the presentations, the speakers highlighted that, besides more funding and efficient European research, greater integration between national and transnational research funding is needed more than ever. Political support will be crucial in both the creation of and maintaining of neuroscience research posts within universities and research centres. Mr Rübig concluded the event by explaining that the European Research Area should provide a common space for European researchers; this is something that needs to be further developed. There is a need to better facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills between researchers working towards common goals in different European countries.

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