Brain science is taking a hit, according to a recent series of papers published in a special issue of the Cell Press journal Neuron.
“While the disease burden and economic impacts are on the rise, progress in the development of new therapeutics and treatment approaches has appeared to have stalled,” reads an editorial introducing the issue. “Approval for new therapeutics (whether drugs, devices, or other treatment approaches) for nervous system disorders have been declining and most of the treatments we currently have are not disease modifying.”
Large pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis have closed or downsized their brain research divisions, according to one paper, a move the study authors believe reflects a growing view that developing drugs for the brain is too difficult and time-consuming. In another report, researchers argue that there are not enough opportunities for various stakeholders to meet and collaborate on the latest research.
Still, researchers of a third paper focusing on Alzheimer’s disease argue that even though stopping neurodegeneration progression “seems daunting at the moment,” the brain and Alzheimer’s community should be encouraged by other fields that have successfully stopped disease onset with prevention efforts—like lowering cholesterol for cardiovascular disease.
The prognosis isn’t entirely dire, because the same researchers also offer their own solutions. To re-gain Big Pharma’s interest, perhaps the incentive model for brain research should change. “One way to do this that would not require upfront funding is to change the policies that regulate market returns for the most-needed breakthrough drugs,” the authors write. “The broader neuroscience community including clinicians and patients should convene to develop and advocate for such policy changes.” Others say they’ve had success in forming their own meetings of minds by pulling a variety of experts together.
There’s also the U.S. government’s BRAIN Initiative, a massive research project to map out the brain and gain a better understanding of disorders that can plague it. It’s unclear what the ambitious project, which is a little more than a year old, will end up contributing to the field. Some researchers have argued it might allocate funding away from labs not involved in the project.
Reisa Sperling, a Harvard neurologist and the lead study author of the new Alzheimer paper, tells TIME the project is a good thing for the disease, but with some caveats. “It is important to note that the BRAIN Initiative is really focused on studying basic mechanisms of how the brain works, rather than identifying disease-specific alterations that are more directly translatable into [Alzheimer’s disease] clinical research,” she says. “So I hope that there will be additional investment that will help us translate mechanistic research on normal brain function into understanding what goes wrong in the brain in early Alzheimer’s disease…to help us find an effective treatment more more quickly.”
The bottom line is that despite lack of funding for the field, the are still reasons to be optimistic. “The pace of research progress in neuroscience over recent years has been nothing short of amazing,” the journal authors write. As long as drug companies can be attracted again to the brain, the vast time spent on trying to unlock it will be well worth it.