Brain Awareness Week is an annual, global campaign aimed at increasing public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. So why is brain research so important?
Better understanding of brain function can help all of us to achieve our full potential, and should allow us to better treat - and ultimately prevent - diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. These diseases grow increasingly common as our population ages, and they carry a devastating economic burden to families and society as a whole. The cost of dementia is estimated to be over 600 billion annually, with the number set to rise dramatically over the next years. We cannot afford to be complacent about this and all need to be aware of how crucial brain research is to our future.
It is becoming increasingly clear that with many progressive neurological diseases, the condition will have been present for years or even decades by the time a diagnosis is made. However, it’s likely that treatments will be most effective at the start of the illness. As such, there is pressure to diagnose conditions earlier - even before symptoms have arisen.
In the case of Alzheimer's disease (where I have a special interest in developing new therapies) much work is ongoing to develop valid biomarkers, which can be used even before symptoms of the disease (such as memory loss) have become apparent. These include detecting the presence of abnormal deposition of proteins, like tau or amyloid, visualised with PET scans.
However, funding such research can be a huge challenge; in the very early stage of the disease, large numbers of patients may be needed to show the effects of drugs on such markers and on clinical changes over many years. Happily, consortia like EPAD are making it possible to test several agents in large cohorts of patients in a more cost efficient way.
C11-PIB PET scan in Alzheimer. Patient - Red areas show abnormal. Deposition of beta-amyloid
Another emerging theme in developing treatments for neurological diseases is the increasing realisation that - as in many other areas of medicine, such as HIV therapy - combinations of therapies will be needed to obtain large effects. Such studies have special challenges and the FDA and other regulatory agencies encourage close dialogue on such developments.
As we gain a better genetic understanding of neurological conditions, it becomes possible to develop targeted therapies based on particular genotypes. Familial forms of Alzheimer´s disease with a genetic mutation are relatively rare, yet groups of such patients have been identified and first studies of new therapies have been started. For example, the amyloid antibody crenezumab is being tested in patients with a genetic form of the disease in Colombia, under the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative.
Raising awareness of brain research and its benefits is an important part of supporting it. I encourage you to learn more on the official Brain Awareness Week website here, where you can also find useful resources to share with people you know.
Julian Gray studied medicine in Oxford and London UK and subsequently completed a DPhil (PhD) in neuropharmacology in Oxford under an MRC Training Fellowship at the Department of Clinical Pharmacology in Oxford. He entered the pharmaceutical industry as a medical expert at Sandoz in Basel in 1988 where he conducted the first clinical trials of Exelon in Alzheimer´s disease. He left to become head of the Alzheimer area at Roche where he did pioneering studies in the 1990s on agents modifying disease progression. He left to test an early amyloid modulating compound at Praecis, a biotech company in Cambridge Massachusetts. He later returned to Europe to become head of CNS at Eisai´s European office in London. Since 2004 he acts as an independent advisor to the industry on CNS development, designing and overseeing the conduct of clinical trials of several novel agents including vaccines against amyloid and tau proteins and compounds in rare diseases. He has developed successful electronic books, tools and courses on Global Medicines Development including a recent supplement on Medicines Development in Alzheimer´s disease. For information, see gray book.