It’s time to prioritise brain health in Europe
Roughly the size of two clenched fists, the human brain isn’t much to look at.
But looks are deceiving. The brain is the single most complex object in the known universe. Built, tested and refined over billions of years, it is a biological supercomputer that puts the fastest manmade machines to shame.
Despite its amazing technical abilities, the brain has a much deeper, philosophical role to play. It is, in essence, you. It’s where your thoughts, your memories, and your understanding and interpretation of the world are processed, stored and recalled.
Despite its amazing technical abilities, the brain has a much deeper, philosophical role to play. It is, in essence, you. It’s where your thoughts, your memories, and your understanding and interpretation of the world are processed, stored and recalled. Our capacity to love others, enjoy music, understand a new scientific theory, or learn a language all depend on a healthy, active brain.
That’s what makes mental illness and brain disease especially tragic. Both effectively rob the victim of an element of their personality, and often in ways that aren’t immediately obvious or visible to the external observer.
Mental illness and brain disease can occur at any point in life, from early childhood to old age. Diagnoses are increasingly common; according to the European Brain Council, as many as one in three of us will develop a brain disorder at some point in life. Though we’re confident about many external and internal factors that can lead to the development of these diseases, we’re still a very long way from fully understanding their causes and progression.
Aside from the suffering of the afflicted individual and their family, brain disease and mental illness indirectly affect society at large. Mood disorders like depression cost EU member states €113.4 billion a year, dementia-type diseases like Alzheimer’s as much as €105.2 billion, and psychotic disorders €93.9 billion.
Brain disease and mental illness are often by-products of age – like a car or an actual computer, years of constant use gradually lead to break down. As European societies live longer, this problem will become widespread. State-funded healthcare services will have little choice but to pay for expensive treatments over a longer period of time. This will create challenges not just for healthcare providers and health ministers, but for the taxpayers who will inevitably have to contribute more of their income.
Neurodegeneration caused by brain diseases, such as dementia are characterised by progressive cognitive decline and significant interference in daily function. The first visible problems in daily life often concern the instrumental activities of daily living (IADL). IADL can be defined as “complex activities for which multiple cognitive processes are necessary,” such as cooking, managing finances, or driving.
Detecting functional decline from normal aging to neurodegeneration is highly relevant for a number of reasons. For example, the prevalence of brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease has increased by 89% since 2000 – underscoring the need for early intervention and preventative measures. Drug development has been problematic, despite enormous capital investments.
Today, it is widely accepted that the likelihood of reversing anatomic and physiologic changes, such as neuronal death, decreases dramatically as the disease advances. This has increased the need for gold-standard approaches to detecting, monitoring and assessing mental and brain health issues at the early stages.
Wild Card: the mental and brain health challenge
What can medical, technical, and business professionals do to improve the diagnosis, treatment and long-term outcomes of brain disease and mental illness patients? Specifically, what ideas can Wild Card 2019 participants bring to the table?
My own research focuses on using new technologies to understand the aging process and to establish prevention methods that decrease the risk of developing dementia or delay the onset of the disease. I have developed models and screens of dementia using computerised tests of complex, real-life activities, such as the assessment of IADLs using spatial navigation and movement trajectory from a mobile phone. With this technology, I have been able to create a tool named Altoida Neuro Motor Index (NMI), which can spot the first neurological effects of Alzheimer’s disease with 94% accuracy up to six to eight years before symptoms appear.
Through the EIT Health project Alzheimer’s Disease Prediction Service (ADPS), we have identified a number of challenges in this area, including the large datasets needed for clinical validation; the limited understanding between general practitioners (GP) or primary care physicians (PCP) on how to differentiate among the 15 subtypes of dementia due to lack of training during medical school curriculums; and the reduced time at the primary care setting to talk to patients and interpret results.
In this year’s competition, innovators taking on mental and brain health should consider the field’s major challenges.
- How can we overcome infrastructural challenges, including limited access to medicine, care and expertise in the healthcare system?
- How do we effectively and efficiently analyse brain research data given its sheer volume and complexity?
- How can we better organise clinical trials when cognitive impairment symptoms present differently in different people?
- How do we provide more “personalised” medicine considering the side effects of general mental and brain health treatments?
There are a few places to start. Using biomarker identification, how can we introduce faster and more accurate diagnoses for cognitive impairments? How can we measure subjective symptoms that aren’t observable by physicians? And how do we proactively engage patients, from raising awareness of brain disease and mental illness in general to continuous symptom monitoring and tracking?
The answers to these questions are out there. Wild Card is looking for game-changers with the passion, ambition and technical expertise to transform the lives of Europeans with mental illness and brain disease. Interested in taking part? Learn more about the mental and brain health challenge.
Dr Ioannis Tarnasas is Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Altoida, a medical device that provides health care professionals with measurements of cognitive performance in patients (aged 55 – 95 years old). As a neuroscientist, Dr Tarnasas is also a Senior Atlantic Fellow and is widely recognised for his research on degenerative disease of the central nervous system.