Neurologist calls for collaboration on brain disorders

Summary

VUB graduate Steven Laureys has called for the federal government to provide more funding and set up a national neurosciences institute to tackle the growing problem of brain diseases

Complex structures

Due to an ageing population and better treatment for all kinds of diseases, brain disorders are likely to be the number one health problem of the 21st century. According to estimates by the Belgian Brain Council, one in three Belgians is at risk of being incapacitated this year as a result of a brain disease.

“These diseases range from stroke to severe depression to rapidly progressive dementia,” says Steven Laureys, a Flemish neurologist at the Coma Science Group based at Liège’s university hospital.

Public health costs related to brain disease rose by more than 40% between 2004 and 2010, to a staggering €18.4 billion. This figure only accounts for the direct costs. Indirect costs for society like absence from work through illness, unemployment and social exclusion take it higher.

The rising costs don’t correspond with the money spent by the federal government to find a way to tackle brain diseases – both on a fundamental, scientific level and in the clinical, applied area – according to the Brain Council. Only 11.8% of the total funding for Belgian research goes to neuroscience.

That’s way too little, says the organisation, which rang the alarm bell at a colloquium last month in Brussels dedicated to the question: What’s the future of brain research in Belgium?

According to Laureys, a graduate of the Free University of Brussels (VUB), the lack of funding is connected to the complex distribution of federal and regional competences. “The federal government recently decided to drop the Interuniversity Attraction Poles Programme, which was part of the Belgian Science Policy Office,” he says.

The programme, Laureys continues, “brought together different networks of research groups from both sides of the language border. This decision is difficult for the neurosciences in particular, as in both regions our field has a strong presence in academia and at the university hospitals.” 

Cross-border collaboration

The complex Belgian structure also makes it more difficult to secure European funding, he says. “This system determines when it’s Flanders’, Wallonia’s or Brussels’ turn to apply for funding.” As a consequence, he says, in the Human Brain Project – the European Commission’s €1 billion flagship project that aims to simulate an entire human brain on a computer – “we were only able to get some crumbs.”

A more solid collaboration between Walloon universities and the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO), says Laureys, would also be welcome in order to reinforce existing networks of Flemish and French speakers. “There’s no language boundary in Belgian neuroscience. Our lingua franca is English.”

Generally in Europe, we lack funding from private partners

- Steven Laureys

Ideally, Belgium would have a proper federal institute for neurosciences, he continues. “This institute would allocate funding on an independent and peer-reviewed basis, just like the FWO does in Flanders for fundamental science,” says Laureys. “The UK, which also has regions with a high degree of autonomy, has the National Brain Council – an organisation that functions thoroughly cross-border.”

The problem, he continues, “is not the government alone. In Belgium, and more generally in Europe, we lack funding from private partners. There are fields that get money from pharmaceutical companies – like Janssen Pharmaceutica, which has put €5 million into the University of Leuven’s Stellar project to boost research into Alzheimer’s disease – but in general we still suffer from what I call therapeutic nihilism.”

Laureys likes to make a comparison with the battle against cancer. “Cancer research receives huge amounts of funding – with good reason. Thanks to this, the perception of cancer has changed dramatically over the years.”

This could happen with brain research, as well. “Not so long ago we used to say that somebody has cancer. Now we mention what particular type of cancer they have, as the chances of survival differ so much now. If we were able to launch a similar campaign against brain diseases, we might someday end up with disorders we can treat.”

Photo: Belpress