Neurobiological research drives the ability to treat mental illness

neurobiological research, treat mental illness
© Ded Mityay

Jeffrey Borenstein, of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation argues that research drives the ability to treat mental illness and why funding innovative neurobiological research is a priority

Since the war on cancer was declared 50 years ago, billions of dollars have rightfully poured into cancer research. Comparatively, mental illness which affects the lives of one in four people, receives a mere fraction of that amount of money for research. It is impossible to overstate the economic, social and personal toll mental illness takes on individuals and society. Mental illness is a real, treatable, medical condition that affects the brain. We know that living with a mental illness is not a choice, or something that’s in someone’s control—just like having any other medical condition.

The time has come to declare war on mental illness and place a priority on funding innovative neurobiological research for better prevention, diagnosis, early intervention, and treatment. The field of psychiatry and neuroscience has seen tremendous scientific advances, but we need to expand basic, translational and clinical research to better understand the workings of the brain and why things go wrong and test new medical and psycho-social approaches.

We also need to raise awareness, eliminate stigma, and remove barriers to treatment.

A growing global problem

While we are making progress, the evidence is overwhelming that mental illness is a significant public health crisis.

Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death among American adults and the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10 to 24. Suicide rates have risen for every age group, except older adults. And a recent study in the British Medical Journal found that incidents of self-harm among girls aged 13 to 16 increased by 68% over a four-year period.

We also continue to see an increase in psychiatric illnesses among veterans, and the rising death toll from alcohol and opiate abuse has decimated families and entire communities. Millions of people with serious mental illnesses go untreated, and U.S. prisons and jails have tragically become de-facto psychiatric hospitals.

U.S. prisons and jails have tragically become de-facto psychiatric hospitals.

Globally, psychiatric illness has become one of the major conditions affecting the health of the world population. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disease burden.

Supporting science research for recovery

BBRF funds the most innovative ideas in psychiatry and neuroscience to better understand the causes and develop new ways to effectively treat brain and behaviour disorders. These disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, ADHD, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. BBRF grants support a broad range of the best ideas in brain research and our grantees have taken substantial steps forward on the path to developing new treatments and finding cures for mental illness.

BBRF supports cutting-edge research that offers the greatest potential for breakthrough discoveries. These discoveries are changing what it means to live with mental illness.

BBRF grants are focused on four priority areas: basic research to understand what happens in the brain to cause mental illness; new technologies to advance or create new ways of studying and understanding the brain; diagnostic tools and early intervention to recognise early signs of mental illness and treat as early as possible; and next-generation therapies to reduce symptoms and ultimately cure and prevent brain and behaviour disorders.

BBRF grants enable outstanding young scientists to begin a career in research as they look to answer important questions or help identify new potentially game-changing targets for treatments.

neurobiological research, treat mental illness
© Igor Akimov

In fact, a RAND Europe analysis of the global mental health research funding landscape found that we are the top non-governmental funder cited in published articles and virtually every scientific journal in psychiatry, neuroscience, molecular biology, and genetics includes articles on the research achievements of BBRF grantees.

Most importantly, BBRF grants have a proven multiplier effect and have led to additional funding from the government, university and industry sources. In fact, the $394 million in grants BBRF has awarded since 1987, has resulted in more than $3.9 billion in additional funding for scientists.

Advances from BBRF grantees continue to define the leading edge of all research in the mental health field. Examples include the use of Clozaril for the treatment of schizophrenia, transcranial magnetic stimulation for depression and other conditions, deep brain stimulation for treatment-resistant depression, the ongoing development of rapid-acting anti-depressants, magnetic stimulation therapy that can be used to treat depression without causing the memory loss that can happen with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and optogenetics which helps scientists around the world to better understand the brain.

Increase funding for mental illness now

Now, more than ever, it is important to reduce stigma, prejudice and stereotypes about mental illness and encourage people who have a psychiatric condition not to suffer in silence, but to seek help. By educating the public about the scientific and biological basis of psychiatric disorders, and the amazing progress we are making in brain and behaviour research, we hope to change the culture.

By educating the public about the scientific and biological basis of psychiatric disorders, and the amazing progress we are making in brain and behaviour research

With so much that needs to be done, how do we make people pay attention to this issue? How do we increase funding for research and make mental health a top priority so that help is available to all who need it?

Only through a combination of public and private funding for high-risk, high-reward research will we generate significant scientific discoveries that change the lives of people with mental illness and their families and impact our larger society.

Our scientific understanding of how the brain works and what happens when illness occurs is helping to change people’s attitudes about mental illness. Research has led to tremendous improvements in how we treat psychiatric conditions and the availability of better treatment has also changed people’s attitudes.

Research offers hope for further advances in treatment and ultimately cures and methods of prevention and is the key to helping people with a mental illness live full, productive, and happy lives.


Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D.

President & CEO

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
Tel: +1 646 681 4888
Twitter: @bbrfoundation


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