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Page last update: 25/12/2008

Europe tackles brain disorders by linking industry with academia

The effects of mental illness were recognised by the Romans and Ancient Greeks. In the Medieval period the cause was believed to be demonic possession or phases of the moon. Since the turn of the 20th century European researchers have followed in the tradition of Sigmund Freud and Alois Alzheimer in studying and understanding disorders of the brain. A new European proposal now brings together industry and academia to create new therapies and push back the frontiers of scientific and medical knowledge.

Mental disorders which may include addiction, depression, and schizophrenia afflict one billion people and are often incurable with current therapies. Not only are such illnesses distressing for sufferers and their families, they also have an impact on the wider society. Unfortunately, attempts to cure brain-related disorders have proved less successful than therapies for other major conditions such as heart disease and cancer, even though just as many people suffer from them. About 600 million worldwide each year are afflicted by depression alone, more than any other condition except heart disease, and yet of those given existing drugs, only half recover.

Developing more effective therapies

Progress in treating depression as well as other major mental disorders has stalled. This stark fact lies behind an ambitious European proposal to revive the field and will be presented at the EuroBioForum conference in Lisbon in December 2007. The proposal stresses the importance of re-launching European research on brain disorders and aims to develop a groundbreaking multi-disciplinary research project, which will propel Europe to the head of global research into the crucial role of neurotransmitters. Bringing together the relevant specialists in chemistry, radio-chemistry, in vivo modelling, and above all Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Single Photon Emission Computer Tomography (SPECT) scanning, the project will exploit recent advances both in PET and SPECT, enabling metabolic activity such as levels of neurotransmitters to be determined with greater accuracy in space and quantity.

The objective is to develop new methods for identifying the release of neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, serotonin, acetylcholine, and endorphins in the brain and so examine their role in major brain disorders. This in turn will enable more effective therapies to be developed as currently available drugs often fail to work, according to the project's leader David Nutt, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol, UK, who will share his vision for this groundbreaking project at the EuroBioForum conference.

The programme has great potential for human health given the vast number of people affected, but as Professor Nutt pointed out, the scale of the task is great.

'We don't even know for example whether serotonin levels are high or low in depressed people,' said Professor Nutt. This is despite the fact that many current anti-depressant drugs, including Prozac, alter the uptake of serotonin by key receptors in the brain. Professor Nutt's observation shows that there is a lack of knowledge about how existing drugs work, and until greater understanding is reached, it will be very difficult to make further progress.

Seizing the opportunity

Until now researchers have been deterred by the sheer extent of the problem in unravelling the complex links between multiple neurotransmitters and a range of conditions. This, said Professor Nutt, is big science on the same level as the Human Genome Project, or splitting the atom. It requires a huge harmonised effort, combining the forces of academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Until now neurological research has tended to be fragmented, with industry more concerned with improving existing therapies and determining correct combinations of drugs and dosage levels. Meanwhile academia tends to plough too many small furrows, without tackling the big picture.

The EuroBioForum conference will provide the platform for researchers to unite behind a common larger goal. As Professor Nutt commented, 'the conference offers a unique opportunity for the academic community, research funding organisations, government, industry and policy making organisations to exchange ideas and contribute to key policy and funding decisions.' He added, 'I'm extremely pleased to have been invited to such an important event and delighted that for the first time a brain research programme has been shortlisted under this initiative.'

The EuroBioForum conference, held annually and organised by the European Science Foundation with support from the EU, is a key event in the European research funding calendar. Its purpose is to provide a platform for representatives from the European scientific community to deliver their vision for grand challenges in the life sciences and so influence future European research funding priorities. The conference offers a unique opportunity for the academic community, research funding agencies, government, industry and policy making organisations to share ideas and contribute to key funding decisions.

Information on EU research programmes and upcoming calls may be found on
CORDIS and in particular the ongoing FP7 Health programme at:
For further information:

Last update: 25 December 2008 | Top