European Brain Council outlines the priorities for the future when it comes to improving the lives of people with brain disorders
More than half of the European population currently are people with brain disorders, which translates into an increasingly worrying burden on society. In 2019, neurological and mental disorders together accounted for more than 16 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). Stroke accounts for more than one million deaths while dementia (most commonly Alzheimer’s disease) and Parkinson’s disease complete the top three causes of death due to neurological disorders in Europe.
In addition, one out of 10 Europeans live with an anxiety or depressive disorder and almost 85,000 Europeans die annually due to substance abuse. Such a high disease burden showcases the immensity of the problem, and it makes clear that brain health (and brain research) needs to be promoted and recognised as a priority by European society.
A future of excellence in European brain research
The European Union (EU) has already undertaken some important steps to boost brain research initiatives with partners around the world, including the EU-funded project “the European Brain Research Area (EBRA)” (2018-2022), led by the European Brain Council and in partnership with the EU Joint Programme on Neurodegenerative Diseases ( JPND), the Network of European Funding for Neuroscience Research (ERA-NET NEURON) and the Human Brain Project (HBP). One of the priorities of the EBRA project is to provide recommendations on future areas for excellent, innovative, and translational research in the brain space. To identify the gaps in currently existing brain research and set the priorities for the future, EBRA, working with experts in the brain space (neuroscientists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and persons with brain disorders) has developed the Shared European Brain Research Agenda (SEBRA).
Consensus was reached that only by advancing the understanding of the healthy and the diseased brain – as well as the interaction between the brain and its environment – we will provide proper improvement in the lives of those living with brain disorders and prevent others from being similarly affected in the future. Brain research nowadays must touch upon fields beyond its own biological background and beyond fundamental and translational brain research. Connections should be established with experimental, computational/artificial intelligence and theoretical approaches, as well as with disciplines like psychology, sociology, education, and philosophy. This interdisciplinary approach allows neuroscience to be linked to empirical and phenomenological sciences, ultimately transforming brain research towards a more holistic approach.
Translating research into reality
To understand and cure the diseased brain, we need to improve the capacity to translate ground-breaking discoveries in basic neuroscience to clinical settings. Furthermore, a better and complete understanding of disease mechanisms is crucial. The creation of translational awareness should be encouraged: basic and clinical researchers need to work and interact together to bring about results in potential clinical applications. We need to gain better insight into the development, and progression of brain diseases, improve the prediction of brain disorders, identify appropriate treatments, understand the impact of neurorehabilitation, and uncover protective and preventive factors (including genetic, epigenetic, environmental, and social factors for brain disorders), as well as compensation mechanisms. To address these disease priorities, investments are particularly fundamental in the field of personalised and precision medicine, particularly in the brain space.
To ensure that these priorities can be addressed, the conditions for carrying out brain research need to improve. Smart data sharing should be encouraged – there is a wealth of existing data in brain research. This huge amount of data should be exploited to ensure relevant use, intelligent interpretation and smart application. The sharing of existing datasets and new pre-clinical and clinical data must be prioritised and accessible in open access mode. Within this perspective, common data rules need to be created for the use of complex human and patient data across the Member States in Europe, as well as for data sharing with industry, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and between different EU and non-EU countries.
Improving lives through collaboration in research
Tackling the challenge posed by the complexity of brain physiology and brain disorders is possible only through close collaboration and cooperation within the community and related actors. The involvement of all relevant stakeholders in the brain area is required, including basic, translational, and clinical scientists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, industry, regulators, funders, and policymakers. The role of people with brain disorders, their families and citizens cannot be underestimated here and is of utter importance. Their experiences, needs, views and quality of life should be considered during all steps of a brain research project. Building networks and matchmaking with key experts in the field (e.g., the Brain Innovation Days, organised by the European Brain Council) should be a priority for all the stakeholders, including policymakers. This will reduce fragmentation in the brain space, contribute to a better understanding of the brain, and encourage the development of a clear scientific discovery-to-market pathway which will eventually improve the lives of persons with brain disorders, their families and society as a whole.
Prioritising the brain in Europe
The brain research community demonstrates a clear need: the European Commission must come forward with a clear plan to tackle brain health in a collaborative, integrated and forward-looking manner in Europe and further support the Member States and associated countries in their efforts to combat the impact of brain disorders. Additionally, the Member States and associated countries would benefit from the implementation and creation of brain research programmes addressing brain health systematically and comprehensively.
Other contributors to this article include:
Dr Kristien Aarts
Project Manager, European Brain Council
Dr Elke De Witte
Head of Project Development, European Brain Council
Executive Director, European Brain Council
“The EBRA project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 825348”
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