No challenge is greater than that of understanding the brain. The EBC explain why more research is key to confronting brain disorders in Europe.
Non-profit organisation the European Brain Council (EBC) brings together patient associations, major brain-related societies and industry to promote neuroscience with the aim of improving the quality of life of the 179 million people living with brain disorders in Europe.
In April, EBC launched its Brain Mission, a dedicated effort to understand the brain, develop new treatments for related diseases, and enhance patient outcomes. The Brain Mission was conceived in recognition of the fact that brain disorders have been largely absent from the health research agenda, despite their significant contribution to both healthcare costs and the global disease burden.
Speaking to Health Europa, EBC president Professor Monica Di Luca discusses the mission and shares her hopes for brain research in the upcoming ninth European research and innovation framework programme, Horizon Europe.
What are the objectives behind the Brain Mission launched earlier this year?
The Brain Mission was launched by EBC after a consultation with all our members. Its goal is to fully understand the brain and to cure its disorders, which we have identified as the main need and challenge of the 21st Century. The cost of brain disorders in Europe is enormous, reaching €800bn each year. In terms of people, one in three European citizens is going to experience a brain disorder during the course of their life, and epidemiological studies show that increased life expectancy will result in more and more brain disorders. In the future, treating them will become unaffordable.
In order to reduce the burden of brain disorders in Europe, we need to take a step back and begin with a full understanding of the brain itself. The brain is the most complex human organ, and for many years this has hampered our ability to fully understand both it and the pathogenic mechanisms of brain disorders. This is a crucial point: a full understanding of the brain is a prerequisite to curing and tackling the challenge.
To arrive at this understanding, we need more curiosity-driven research and we need to improve how we develop drugs for neurological disorders and mental illness. We also need to implement the technologies and tools that are now available for these purposes.
How would you evaluate the brain-related initiatives under Horizon 2020, and what are your hopes for Horizon Europe?
In the past, brain research was clearly identified as a priority in the European Union, and this was one of the main successes of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Unfortunately, this concept has been lost in Horizon 2020.
Having said that, it is important to recognise the effort the European Commission has made, as it hasn’t disregarded brain research entirely. The Joint Programme for Neurodegenerative Disease Research (JPND) and ERA-NET NEURON have, in particular, been incredibly positive in the field of research. However, not all member states and institutions participate in these initiatives.
The portion of the Horizon 2020 budget that has been allocated to brain research is considerable, but it is completely fragmented. We would like to see a more harmonised way to fund brain research, and what we are really eager to see again in the next framework programme, Horizon Europe, is a return to brain research being recognised as a priority for all Member States – that is, a dedicated sum being allocated to neuroscience. This is really important, and this is why we are insisting on the concept of a Brain Mission, not just because we believe that brain disorders are going to be the biggest challenge of the next century but also because we are fully convinced that we need to harmonise all the calls and funding included in the framework programme if we are going to meet that challenge.
Something else that has been lost in Horizon 2020 is curiosity-driven research, which I’ve already mentioned. It is included in Pillar 1: Excellent Science, but the number of labs that can benefit from the impact of ERC-allocated funds is limited. In that sense, we have lost the momentum that we gained during FP7 with collaborative research projects dedicated to curiosity-driven research.
The EU framework programmes have created a natural environment for collaborative research to flourish. How effectively has this been achieved in brain research, and what obstacles remain to co-operation?
Collaborative research is one of the added values of the framework programmes, and that was especially clear in the Sixth Framework Programme and FP7. EBC has played a key role in informing the European Commission of the needs and gaps in the research community. In the past, we have published what we call ‘consensus documents’ on brain research, which were an effort to map gaps in our knowledge of the brain and its disorders. In a 2011 document, we identified 46 priority research areas – including preclinical and clinical – and they were fully reflected in FP7. Brain research was itself a priority and a lot of collaborative studies were funded.
That was extremely important, because it’s vital that all the different disciplines – the scientists, the patient organisations, the industry – all learn how to work together. Now, it appears that this effort has been lost in Horizon 2020. One of our requests, therefore, is that collaborative research be reintegrated into Horizon Europe.
What is needed to translate the outcomes of research into new diagnostic tools and treatments for brain disorders in Europe, and what role does the European Brain Council play in this space?
In my opinion, the complexity of the brain has hampered – or, rather, delayed – the translation of research outcomes into tools and treatments. Having said that, very often, it has been said that we are not delivering, but if you look carefully at the management of patients with brain disorders in Europe nowadays, in comparison to 10-15 years ago, it has completely transformed.
Take, for example, the diagnosis of dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease, in particular, which are two of the biggest challenges for the future. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages in the patient using biomarkers and imaging tools is now possible, and this represents an incredible advancement in the field.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is another example. Today we have drugs for MS that can be administered orally, and they have completely changed the lives of the patients who need them.
I am sometimes confused, therefore, when people say that we are not delivering results. Perhaps we need to communicate better with policymakers and even the public so that the results of brain research could be more effectively disseminated.
Of course, the complexity of brain disorders has delayed the main goal – cures for said diseases – and I would agree that complete translation is not yet there. We just need more time and secure funding.
EBC has recently launched a project called EBRA (European Brain Research Area) that aims to harmonise the different brain research and funding initiatives in Europe. We’d like to sit down with the JPND, the Human Brain Project and ERA-NET NEURON to discuss how we can achieve that and also reduce fragmentation in both funding and research, as well as to identify where the gaps in knowledge are and how we can facilitate translation. That is an enormous goal, but we hope we can achieve it.
This article will appear in issue 7 of Health Europa Quarterly, which will be published in November 2018.