Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are placing big new bets on the future of brain science, just as much of the pharmaceutical industry retreats from the field.
Brain disorders ranging from depression to Alzheimer’s are extracting an ever greater social and economic cost across the globe. But while the United States and European Union are funding ambitious efforts in neuroscience, the private sector is often skeptical about the prospect of rapid breakthrough cures.
Many pharmaceutical companies harbor deep doubts about whether neuroscience is worth their investment dollars as a boom period for once highly profitable psychiatric medicines comes to an end and new drugs prove hard to find.
President Barack Obama unveiled a major initiative to map the individual cells and circuits that make up the human brain. That announcement followed a EU decision in January to award up to $1.3bn to a Swiss-based project aiming to create a synthetic “computerised” brain.
The two programs - Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies and the Human Brain Project - have been compared with the Human Genome Project, the 13-year venture to map human DNA completed in 2003. In fact, they are even more ambitious, given their open-ended nature.
Yet it will be years, possibly decades, before the findings of these programs make any significant difference to the millions of people worldwide suffering from brain disorders - a challenge for both neuroscientists and industry.
Brain science may be on the cusp of a new era, but in the short term it is proving frustratingly hard to improve on the uneven effectiveness of existing drugs - such as the 25-year-old antidepressant Prozac - or to find new Alzheimer’s treatments.
At a festival of neuroscience on the banks of London’s River Thames this week, 2,000 neuroscientists from all areas of the field tried to bring their work to life for the public.
Wearing blue badges saying “ask me about brains” enthusiasts from universities, charities and patient groups invited visitors to “knit a neuron” or stimulate their grey matter by interacting with a walking man-sized sponge brain.
In rooms set back from the fun, brain scientists presented data on the prefrontal cortex and decision making, and delivered lectures on neuropsychiatry in the 21st century.
Some were buoyed by the news that world leaders have finally begun to notice their field, and are stumping up serious cash, but there is also a fear the big brain projects may generate more hype than help.
“There’s going to be a lot of hype about this, just as there was at the beginning of the Human Genome Project,” said Stephen Rose, a professor of biology and neurobiology at the Open University and the University of London.
Britain’s biggest drugmaker also has a new vision for treating disease by developing “bioelectronics” to target the electrical signals transmitted by nerves.