EU needs brain health strategy

It's time the EU came forward with a European strategy to tackle brain health, argues Philippe de Backer.

By Philippe De Backer

03 Dec 2015

As you read the first sentence of this article, you are using your brain. You are decoding the marks in ink as letters and words. You are giving sentences a meaning and interpreting them. Fascinating, don't you think?

People rarely reflect on the wonder of our brain. A simple mass, mostly made out of fat and carbs, is the motor of our lives. It lets us breathe. It lets us function. It lets us be. It is hard to imagine the suffering that must occur when someone's brain isn't functioning as it should.

However, one out of three Europeans will be confronted by this situation during their lifetime. Currently 165 million fellow citizens have brain disorders.


Disorders like developmental issues, neurodegenerative diseases, pain, and even psychiatric diseases. The burden is not only on personal suffering. It also affects our society, both socially as well as economically.

Five years ago, in 2010, Europe spent €798bn on tackling brain disorders. That's an average cost of €5550 per citizen. That is more than all the costs for cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes combined. Around 60 per cent of this €798bn are direct healthcare costs, with the remaining 40 per cent due to productivity loss and other economic-related costs.

However, society not only pays out financially, but also emotionally. If one out of three are confronted with a brain disorder, then chance is high that one of your close relatives will be affected.

With the impact of all these facts in mind, it is therefore clear that it is time to act. Europe must fulfil a coordinating and supporting duty towards its member states. 

It must encourage the member states to develop or refine a clear strategy, both financial as well as non-financial on how to reduce the negative impact of brain disorders. That is why we need national mental illness and health plans for each EU member state.

An exchange of best practices between national governments and cooperation in research is a win-win for everyone involved. A firm and constructive dialogue must form the basis of approaching this problem.

And this dialogue can only be constructive when the opinions and needs of patients, doctors and caretakers, researchers, and industry are consulted.

Research in neurosciences must be promoted. This research must focus on early diagnosis and suitable treatment of disorders, in order to have the lowest burden of disease impact. The goal of research strategies must be the total prevention of brain disorders.

Here too, Europe can be a prominent motivator by helping to provide much-needed funds and by creating the right legal framework that inspires innovation to flourish in this domain.

The European Brain Council has already begun raising awareness during a congress on 17 November here in Brussels. 

Sharing best practices on how to create public awareness, how to address the health related issues, and where funds are the most effectively spent can only be seen as strengthening a European approach.

Overall, this congress was a good start to motivate the appetite for more work in this field of all the European institutions. It must stimulate the creation of an effective plan to confront this highly alarming societal challenge in the strategy towards a sustainable European economy in 2020.

The goal of policymakers must be to foster innovation towards the eradication of fundamental health problems like brain disorders. They must recognise that health is part of a bigger ecosystem. A system that also includes, but is not limited to Europe's global position in economics, politics, and diplomacy. 

That is why we call upon the European Commission to come forward with a European strategy to tackle brain health in a collaborative, integrated and comprehensive manner, and to further support EU member states and associated countries in their efforts to combat the impact of brain disorders.


Read the most recent articles written by Philippe De Backer - Pancreatic cancer: tackling the threat of a silent killer