Brussels, 19 Sep 2003
The split between basic and clinical science, insufficient funding and the fragmentation of resources are key barriers to the establishment of a well structured brain research area in Europe, an international conference has heard.
On 18 September, a total of 250 representatives from academia and industry, public administrations, research funding bodies, and patients' organisations gathered to discuss these barriers and try to reach a consensus on the best way forward for brain research in Europe.
Opening the conference, Commissioner for Research, Philippe Busquin underlined the need to rethink the structure of brain research in Europe in order to better investigate this complex organ. 'The brain is a like a 'new frontier' which needs to be conquered,' said the Commissioner.' It is at the origin of human intelligence and creativity, yet so little is know about how it works and there is equally little awareness among the public of the health benefits and the economic development that brain research can bring.'
The social and economic impact of brain diseases is certainly a cause for concern, according to Jes Olesen, President of the European Brain Council (EBC). 'Some months ago, along with the World Health Organisation (WHO), we documented that in Europe brain diseases accounted for 35 per cent of the burden of all the diseases in Europe,' he told CORDIS News.
Mr Olesen went on to explain that the need to take action against this burden is pressing, given the increasingly ageing population in Europe, which he believes, will only exacerbate the situation. 'If you project 20 years into the future, this burden will increase by another five to ten per cent,' claimed Mr Olesen. 'The potential impact of these diseases is like a ticking bomb under the whole economy of Europe.
'The US and Japan have invested heavily in this field, because they know it leads to the production of big selling drugs and many applications,' he continued. 'Europe has to get back on track and invest the resources where they are needed.'
However, while providing adequate funding is essential to the establishment of a strong scientific base for brain research in Europe, Mr Olesen believes that other elements have to be factored in to better understand why this field of science presents so many barriers.
One factor is the sheer scope of the field. Brain research is multidisciplinary by nature, ranging from the development of basic knowledge in the areas such as molecular and cellular neuroscience, developmental neurobiology, neurogenetics, sensory physiology, ethnology and cognitive neurosciences, to pre clinical and clinical research into neurological and psychiatric disorders and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
'The multidisciplinarity of brain research has led to many of the barriers challenging its future today,' Mr Olesen said. 'Stakeholders in the past have been reluctant to work together and often competed for funding. This has led them to look at one another with suspicion.
'In order to lift the barriers between the different areas of brain science and get stakeholders talking and working together, we need to look at employing a variety of actions,' said Mr Olesen, noting that the Commission has helped to give the process a kick start with its call for the development of a European Research Area.
'The European Commissioner has made a very important political move and is setting the scene by declaring this a part of the ERA,' Mr Olesen told CORDIS News. 'It is now up to brain scientists to shoulder some of the responsibility and follow up on this.'
Mr Olesen agreed that the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) is playing an instrumental role in helping scientists come together to build the critical mass necessary in this field. The Commission is currently negotiating new projects in the field of neuroscience, to be launched in 2004, with a combined budget of approximately 45 million euro.
'Our intention with FP6 is to provide the right tools to construct a viable structure for brain research,' explained Octavi Quintana Trias, Director of life sciences at the Commission's Research DG.
He told CORDIS News that the emphasis was not on funding and increasing the knowledge but on structuring it. Three instruments have been deployed for the purpose: Integrated Projects, Networks of Excellence and Article 169. 'The aim here is to integrate the public with the private, basic and applied and programs from different countries,' explained Mr Quintana Trias.
'The FP6 tools will certainly have a beneficial effect in creating networks and facilitating cooperation, but it is not enough,' claimed Mr Olesen. The European Brain Council is proposing a separate programme on brain research within the next European research Framework Programme. 'This is obviously a very big goal but I don't see why we cannot do it,' he said.
Mr Olesen underlined that his organisation aims to work in close collaboration with the European Commission to push forward their proposal. 'It would be good idea to have a task force to take a closer look at our proposal and to produce a white paper.'
However before considering such a proposal, Mr Quintana Trias said that a closer partnership has to be built between the main European organisations in the field of neurosciences, namely the EBC and the federation of all European neuroscience societies (FENs).
'I think that a major goal will be to work together so there is one united voice for this kind of research,' said Mr Quintana Trias. 'Achieving this would make it easier to identify the topics and the kind of research that needs funding on a European scale.'
Discussions on the possibility of a partnership are already underway between the EBC and FENs. 'In the meantime, we will do everything we can to make FP6 a success and make sure it has as beneficial effect as possible on brain research in Europe,' said Mr Olesen.
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