Prioritising brain research

The EU needs a vision that addresses brain research as one key priority, argue MEPs Tomislav Sokol, Petra De Sutter and Frédérique Ries.

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The brain is undoubtedly the most important organ in the human body, yet it remains one of the most mysterious.

Understanding the brain has intrigued and astounded scientists for years and we are still striving to find cures or truly effective means of delaying or reducing the burdens placed on individuals and society by its disorders.

Ahead of this year’s Brain Awareness Week - the global campaign to foster public enthusiasm and support for brain science – we want to make our case for the brain and the mechanisms available to the European Union to make a difference in developing research and improving the lives of the 179 million Europeans living with brain disorders, both neurological and mental.


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Despite the prevalence of brain disorders in Europe, there are currently no disease modifying treatments available to cure a wide range of mental and neurological conditions.

Developing treatments that can significantly improve the lives of those living with brain disorders is extremely challenging.

The complexity of brain disorders is a testament to the need for a multidisciplinary approach to tackling them.

Engaging patients and scientific and clinical communities at all levels is required to ensure that Europe’s citizens can benefit from discoveries and that advances in neuroscience are translated into new diagnostic tools and treatments for brain disorders.

Multi-stakeholder engagement is needed to create an enabling environment that can foster investment in innovation in brain disorders and propose concrete avenues to remove existing barriers.

EU decision makers can also play a major role in ensuring Europe transforms into a global leader in the development of new treatments by creating an innovation-friendly environment that can sustain scientific breakthroughs in the field of brain disorders.

It should be highlighted that well-evidenced improvements to clinical care are crucial to patients’ quality of life and to improved access to treatments.

The redesign of healthcare systems to become proactive rather than reactive can play a significant role in the prevention if these disorders and the improvement of care for EU citizens.

Around a third of the world’s population will be affected by a mental or neurological disorder during their lives. Global data, particularly those from European studies, indicates that these disorders are a major public health problem with brain disorders ranking among the leading causes of ill-health and disability.

The burden is growing due to the epidemiological transition from acute to chronic diseases and the increase in life expectancy, but also because of several socioeconomic, environmental and behavioural health determinants.

Discussions on health care too often focus on the increase of costs rather than the benefits of better health.

“Developing treatments that can significantly improve the lives of those living with brain disorders is extremely challenging. The complexity of brain disorders is a testament to the need for a multidisciplinary approach to tackling them”

Therefore, emphasising the need for more value-based and patient-centred care, and the scaling-up of an integrated care model for mental and neurological disorders, is important.

An integrated care model encompasses the whole care process, from prevention, onset of symptoms and early diagnosis to disease management and patient empowerment.

In Europe about 30 million people suffer from a debilitating rare disease. In the European Union, a disease is defined as rare when it affects fewer than 1 in 2000 people.

Rare diseases can be clinically and economically burdensome and a significant challenge for health systems because of the risk of not responding to patients’ needs and of not guaranteeing equal access to treatment.

To address the challenges of rare diseases, the creation, promotion and funding of European Reference Networks (ERNs) is crucial.

Cross-border healthcare in Europe must come hand in hand with cooperation between health systems.

The Horizon Europe research and innovation framework programme holds the potential to accelerate the development of novel treatments for improving the lives of people affected by mental and neurological conditions and could ultimately reduce the disease burden of brain disorders if well designed and implemented.

In order to do so, the EU needs a vision that addresses brain research as one key priority. This should cut across the forthcoming framework programme and we call on the European Commission and Member States to make this a key priority for the next Strategic Planning exercise.

If our goal as Europeans is to ensure increased leadership in fields such as research and innovation at a global level, we undeniably need to be making bolder decisions.

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