A pan-Canadian team of researchers has secured a $1.5 million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to develop a strategy to position the advancement of knowledge about the brain as a national research priority and support the creation of the Canadian Brain Research Strategy Network. This network will coordinate Canada’s participation in the International Brain Initiative, which brings together the world’s major brain research projects.
Neurological disorders are the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of death worldwide. The burden of neurological disorders has substantially increased over the last 25 years with the aging of the Canadian population. The coordinated efforts of brain researchers from across Canada through the Canadian Brain Research Strategy Network offers an unprecedented chance to reduce this burden and to improve the quality of life of Canadians.
The Canadian Brain Research Strategy Network is headed up by Dr. Yves De Koninck, a professor with Université Laval’s Faculty of Medicine and director of the CERVO Brain Research Centre, and Dr. Judy Illes, a professor at the University of British Columbia and director of Neuroethics Canada. The heads of 31 teams from Canada’s leading neuroscience institutes and research centres will join with them in developing the strategy. The coalition Neurological Health Charities Canada will bring the voice of Canadians affected by brain conditions to strategy development.
Several issues convinced the researchers of the urgency of developing a coordinated vision of brain research. “The first was the slow progress in the fight against brain disease,” explains De Koninck. “We’re still not able to cure or effectively treat disorders or illnesses like autism, Alzheimer’s, addiction, or depression. We believe that concerted action by neuroscience researchers will be a game-changer, just like it was for cardiovascular disease, where mortality rates have dropped 75% compared to 60 years ago.”
Another issue was the human and economic cost of brain disease. “In the course of their lives, one Canadian in three will be diagnosed with a brain disease or experience a brain injury. This often has a devastating impact on their quality of life and that of their families,” adds Deanna Groetzinger, manager of Neurological Health Charities Canada (NHCC), a coalition of organizations that represent people with brain diseases, disorders and injuries in Canada. “A 2016 study showed that neurological illnesses and mental health problems generated annual costs to the Canadian economy of some $61 billion. In addition, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on stress and anxiety, particularly among health care workers and people living with brain conditions, shows just how important mental health is to our society.”
The Canadian Brain Research Strategy will coordinate Canada’s involvement in the International Brain Initiative. Like the Human Genome Project, which brought the entire scientific community together between 1988 and 2003 around the sequencing of the human genome, the International Brain Initiative will see thousands of scientists working toward a shared objective: understanding how the brain works and improving the treatments available to those suffering from brain-related illnesses. “Key aspects of the Canadian Brain Research Strategy in this regard are the ethical, legal, societal and cross-cultural importance of discoveries about the brain and their meaningful translation into practice” notes Illes. “The neuroethical piece has already grounded the formulation and execution of the Strategy.”
“Canada’s participation will focus on the brain’s plasticity, which underpins our ability to learn, remember, and adapt,” says De Koninck. “This should give us greater insight into how these processes can be disrupted and lead to brain disorders and pathologies. We also hope our collaborative, concerted approach to research will attract note. We want the Canadian way to set an example for other countries.”