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Brussels, 30 April 2013
Questions and answers on 'European Month of the Brain'
What is the European Month of the Brain?
The 'European Month of the Brain' is an initiative of the European Commission which will take place throughout May 2013. Everyone with an interest in brain research and healthcare is invited to join and contribute to a month packed full of events and activities. To date, more than 50 events in 19 countries are planned.
What are its aims?
Disorders of the brain affect every European family. At the same time they cause huge damage to our economies through costs for medicines, visits to doctors, hospitalisations, social services, nursing homes, time off work, early retirement and so on. Treatment and care for those affected is already costing €1.5 million every minute in Europe and this burden will rise as our populations age if we don't take action.
The European Commission initiated the Month of the Brain to step up our efforts in the fight against brain diseases; to increase our awareness of the importance of brain research and healthcare; to showcase EU achievements in these fields; to define new research and policy directions; to improve the resource allocation for brain research and healthcare within and between EU member states and associated countries; and to lift taboos around brain health.
Is it only about health?
No. Brain research involves many disciplines from genetics, cell biology, physiology, imaging, bioinformatics, anatomy and clinical investigations to behavioural sciences, ICT, nanotechnology and nutrition. Unlocking the secrets of how the brain works could therefore also open up a whole new universe of services and products for our economies.
What brain research is the EU already funding?
Through its 2007-13 research framework programme (FP7), the European Union has already invested €1.9 billion into brain research and innovation. More than 1,200 projects involving over 1,500 organisations have benefited from this unprecedented level of support, distributed on the following areas:
Brain functions and processes: >€750 million
Neurodegenerative disorders: >€400 million
Neurological disorders: €400 million
Neuropsychiatric disorders: >€280 million
Public Health: €75 million
Rare brain disorders: €70 million
EU-supported brain research and innovation comes in different shapes and formats, including international collaborative projects, frontier research through the European Research Council (ERC), public-private partnerships (e.g. Innovative Medicines Initiative), networks (e.g. European Stroke Network), global co-operations (e.g. International Initiative for Traumatic Brain Injury Research), training and mobility schemes for young researchers, or the large-scale 'Human Brain Project'.
A detailed list of all projects and country-specific funding figures can be found in the new publication: Brain research supported by the European Union 2007-2012. A unique commitment.
Do you have examples of successful projects?
With FP7 funding of some €5.2 million, the PLASTICISE project, coordinated by researchers at Cambridge University, has identified new pathways for treating Alzheimer's disease, stroke, and brain or spinal injury. The project found new ways of restoring plasticity – the ability to make new connections between nerve cells and repair or replace other connections - in adults back to the level seen in children. The project has also devised a new microscopy tool to map areas of the brain affected by stroke.
A significant investment of €23 million was made to set up, via the projects EU-GEI and OPTIMISE, a new European schizophrenia platform that allows researchers to identify the genetic, clinical and environmental factors involved in the emergence of the disease. It is also a major step forward in relation to the optimised treatment and management of the condition.
The INTERSTRESS project is using advanced ICT-based solutions to assess and treat a condition that most of us experience: psychological stress. The user wears easy-to-use, low cost and comfortable sensors to monitor heartbeat, respiration, sweat and other physical indications of stress. The mobile application then takes the user through relaxation exercises, scenes, and sounds in a virtual beach, forest, mountain or tropical environment, adjusting the scenes and music to lower the user's stress levels. The 3D-biofeedback app is currently undergoing clinical trials. In 2012 the project, supported with €3 million in EU funding, won the UN-based World Summit Award Mobile for the best mobile health application.
The three-year RENVISION project, launched in March, aims to help improve vision in artificial systems. The project will study how our eye's retina receives and how our brain encodes visual information. It will then use these insights to develop high-level computer vision. This knowledge could allow computers to, for example, categorise natural scenes (i.e. telling the difference between a beach and a forest) or recognise human action (i.e. understanding if a person is walking or driving). This could help us give robots and vehicles better navigation and environment awareness, improve object recognition and image classification.
In the NEWMEDS project, supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), companies have pooled data to create the largest known database of studies on schizophrenia. Thanks to this resource, the project has found that the length of clinical trials (usually six weeks) in which patients on active treatment are compared to patients taking a placebo (a mock treatment) could be shortened by one or two weeks. NEWMEDS has also demonstrated how Copy Number Variations of genes may affect intellectual disability, autism, and schizophrenia.
Another IMI project, EUROPAIN, is paving the way for new treatments for chronic pain, a condition affecting one in five Europeans. The team has identified the molecule behind the pain of sunburn, a discovery which could also shed light on the pain caused by other inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Also supported via IMI, EU-AIMS suggests that certain brain changes in autism may be reversible. The findings suggest that there may be common deficits in the brains of individuals affected by many different forms of autism, and that drugs designed to target them could halt the development of autism or even reverse it.
A Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions funded project, PRONEURODEG, identified the operational logic of a specific brain cell surface protein triggering inflammatory reactions commonly leading to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. This research could lead to the development of potential therapeutic approaches to control the harmful inflammatory reaction. Another project, BRAINTRAIN, is mapping the interplay of environmental factors and genetic variation in multiple genes which are thought to cause brain disorders (dementia and major depressive disorder). One of the objectives of the project is to design therapeutic strategies for these diseases.
At the Royal Netherlands Academy for Arts and Sciences, ERC Starting grantee Professor Christian Keysers is shedding new light on the processes of empathy within our neurons in the VICARIOUSBRAIN project. His study will benefit life sciences, particularly genetics, and will inspire better therapies for psychiatric disorders of empathy such as autism. For robotics, it will concretise a biological example of how brains process and predict actions of others as well as read their feelings.
ERC Advanced grantee Professor Martin Schwab at the University of Zurich (Switzerland), aims to better understand nerve-regeneration and functional recovery after injury to the body’s central nervous system in the NOGORISE project. For these processes of repair, the inactivation of the membrane protein Nogo-A has been increasingly recognised. Along with his team, the researcher has found a member of a specific family of receptor proteins, to bind with high affinity Nogo-A, facilitating nerve fibre growth and plasticity.
What is being done to combat Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases?
Neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline are emerging as one of the greatest public health challenges. It is estimated that by 2040, 14 million Europeans will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and that their care will cost about €140 billion per year.
The EU has invested some €400 into neurodegenerative diseases research - mostly on Alzheimer’s (€202 million) and Parkinson’s (€167 million) but also other diseases such as Huntington’s, ataxias, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, lysosomal storage diseases or retinal diseases. One example is the AgedBrainSYSBIO project. Launched in Paris this March, it aims at identifying and validating new molecular targets and biomarkers associated with late-onset Alzheimer's, looking in particular at the systems biology of synapse proteins and ageing. Through the €5.4 million LANIR project, University of Limerick (Ireland) scientists are leading an 11 member European consortium developing a nanoscope which will allow the screening of patient cells for Alzheimer’s disease.
The EU is also helping coordinate national research efforts.
Through the European Member State-led Joint Programming Initiative on Neurodegenerative Diseases (JPND), a total of 27 countries including some non-EU countries, have committed some €45 million to date to neurodegenerative diseases research on how to improve the clinical use of biomarkers; genetic, epigenetic and environmental risk and protective factors; and evaluation of health care policies, strategies and interventions.
The Joint Action, “Alzheimer Cooperative Valuation in Europe (ALCOVE)”, involving 19 Member States and co-financed by the EU Health Programme, this March issued a set of recommendations covering, for example, the epidemiology of dementia, timely diagnosis, and the management of the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia. A toolbox to help limit the use of anti-psychotics in dementia treatment, has also been created.
The European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing, launched by the Commission, also addresses Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. The prevention, early diagnosis and management of functional decline, both physical and cognitive, in older people, is one of the six key areas for action within this partnership whereby finding innovative solutions is a key component in driving this area.
What about mental disorders such as depression?
A Joint Action on mental health and well-being, co-financed under the EU Health Programme, brings together many countries to develop an action framework for the promotion of mental health, the prevention of mental disorders and the provision of community-based services for people experiencing mental disorders. The European Alliance Against Depression (EAAD) plays an important role. It has developed an approach currently used by nearly 100 regions across the EU to improve the care for people with depression and to prevent suicides and suicide attempts.
How does the Human Brain project fit in?
Europe's new 'Human Brain Project' aims to reconstruct the brain through supercomputer-based models and simulations not only to apply this knowledge in future medicine but also to develop ground-breaking new computing and robotic technologies. It is part of part of the European Commission's Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) research programme's Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) initiative. FET's goal is to promote long-term research and lay foundations of radically new next generation technologies. Based on previous pioneering work by the project partners, HBP will build an integrated system of six ICT-based research platforms, providing scientists anywhere in the world with access to highly innovative tools and services that can radically accelerate the pace of their research. These will include: The Neuroinformatics Platform: bringing together data and knowledge from neuroscientists around the world and making it available to the scientific community; The Brain Simulation Platform: integrating this information in unifying computer models, making it possible to identify missing data, and allowing in silico experiments, impossible in the lab; The High Performance Computing Platform: providing the interactive supercomputing technology neuroscientists need for data-intensive modeling and simulations; The Medical Informatics Platform: federating clinical data from around the world, providing researchers with new mathematical tools to search for biological signatures of disease; The Neuromorphic Computing Platform: translating brain models into a new class of hardware devices testing their applications; The Neurorobotics Platform: allowing neuroscience and industry researchers to experiment with virtual robots controlled by brain models developed in the project.
What are other countries doing?
Looking beyond Europe, the EU is co-operating with the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the Canadian Institute of Health Research through the 'International Initiative for Traumatic Brain Injury Research' (InTBIR). Launched in 2011, the initiative works on harmonised clinical guidelines and the most effective clinical interventions for different types of brain injuries and patient histories. InTBIR is open to funding agencies from other countries wishing to support its aims. Traumatic brain injuries are the most important cause of disability in individuals under the age of 45 and it is estimated that they cause costs of €33 billion per year in Europe. Canada also participates in the EU Joint Programming Initiative on Neurodegenerative Diseases (JPND). The U.S. recently announced the Brain Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project, which aims to develop new technologies to investigate how the billions of individual brain cells interact.
What is going to happen under Horizon 2020?
The European Commission’s Horizon 2020 proposal defines the framework for future EU research and innovation efforts during the 2014-2020 period. Brain research will be supported under all three pillars – 'excellent science', 'industrial leadership' and 'societal challenges' of Horizon 2020. The 'Health, demographic change and well-being' challenge, which will aim to improve the diagnosis, understanding and treatment of diseases, will be particularly relevant. The Horizon 2020 negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament can enter into their final phase once an agreement on the next Multi-annual Financial Framework has been reached.