Attempts to cure brain-related disorders have proved less successful than therapies for other major conditions such as heart cancer, even though just as many people suffer from them.
About 600 million worldwide each year are afflicted by depression alone, more than any other condition except heart disease, and yet of those given existing drugs, only half recover.
Furthermore progress treating depression as well as other major brain disorders has stalled. This stark fact lies behind an ambitious European proposal to revive the field. The proposal, to be presented at EuroBioForum, in Lisbon in December 2007, aims to develop a ground breaking multi-disciplinary research project which would propel Europe to the head of global research into the crucial role of neurotransmitters in brain disorders. Bringing together the relevant specialisms in chemistry, radio-chemistry, in vivo modelling, and above all PET and SPECT scanning, the project would exploit recent advances both in PET (Positron Emission Tomography), and SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computer Tomography), enabling metabolic activity such as levels of neurotransmitters to be determined with greater accuracy in space and quantity.
The objective is to develop new methods to identify the release of neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline, serotonin, acetylcholine, and endorphins, in the brain and so examine their role in major brain disorders. This in turn will enable more effective therapies to be developed than current drugs, which often fail to work, according to the project's leader David Nutt, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol, UK. Professor Nutt is presenting his vision for this groundbreaking project at the EuroBioForum conference, which is organised by the European Science Foundation (ESF) with support from the European Commission.
The programme has great potential for human health given the vast number of people affected, but as Professor Nutt pointed out, the scale of the task is great.
“We don't even know for example whether serotonin levels are high or low in depressed people,” said Professor Nutt. This is despite the fact that many current anti-depressant drugs, including Prozac, alter the uptake of serotonin by key receptors in the brain. Professor Nutt's observation shows that there is a lack of knowledge over how existing drugs work, and until greater understanding is reached, it will be very difficult to make further progress.
Until now researchers have been deterred by the sheer extent of the problem in unravelling the complex links between multiple neurotransmitters and a range of conditions. This, said Professor Nutt, is big science on the same level as the Human Genome Project, or splitting the atom. It requires a huge harmonised effort, combining the forces of academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Until now neurological research has tended to be fragmented, with industry more concerned with improving existing therapies and determining correct combinations of drugs and dosage levels. Meanwhile academia has tended to plough too many small furrows, without tackling the big picture.
The EuroBioForum conference will provide the platform for researchers to unite behind a common larger goal. As Professor Nutt commented, “the conference offers a unique opportunity for the academic community, research funding organisations, government, industry and policy making organisations to share ideas and contribute to key policy and funding decisions.” He added, “I'm extremely pleased to have been invited to such an important event and delighted that for the first time a brain research programme has been shortlisted under this initiative.”