We know that the human brain is the most complicated instrument in the world. Not only does the brain contain 100 billion nerve cells commanding an incredibly intricate electrical and chemical network, but it poses huge obstacles to studying its workings in a live state. This explains, in part, why our understanding of the brain lags far behind our understanding of other aspects of the human body.
We also know that for the millions of people around the world living with degenerative and debilitating brain disorders, the need to unlock the mysteries of the brain is urgent and real.
So the question we face is: given these inherent challenges, and against the backdrop of the escalating brain disorder epidemic we are witnessing, how do we rapidly accelerate our research progress?
While I could list many priorities that must be addressed to make brain research more effective, one that is especially important is continuing to re-orient ourselves to adopt a more global approach.
Brain disorders are not a national problem. Whether it’s Major Depressive Disorder, Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, or one of dozens of other disorders that stem from our brains, the toll of psychiatric and neurological disorders are felt everywhere, with far-reaching impacts on individuals, on families and on societies.
This is why I was so encouraged to see how the Lundbeck Foundation (the independent foundation that owns 70% of our company and is a major research funder) chose to award its Brain Prize for 2015.
The Brain Prize, the world’s most valuable neuroscience award (at €1m, it exceeds the Nobel Prize), strives to recognize scientists who have made distinctive contributions to research in our field. This year, that prize went to four scientists – two German (Winfried Denk and Arthur Konnerth) and two American (Karel Svobada and David Tank) – who together have developed new technology that has enormously enhanced our collective ability to study the brain in real time.
The process of their invention of “two photon microscopy” (a technique that borrows from both biology and physics to allow us to examine how cells communicate with each other in networks) reflects a model that I believe is essential to future research. In their case, while the original idea was driven from Germany by Denk (with support from Tank and Svobada), in both Germany and the U.S., Konnerth and Svobada respectively built on its application, utilizing it at first to monitor synaptic connections in living animals, and then to study how these connections changed as animals learned new skills.
We have a long way to go when it comes to brain research, and while breakthroughs arrive every day, if we are going to be truly disruptive in the ways patients need us to be, we must continue to think critically about how we are approaching this incredibly complex problem. I am always proud of the work our owner, the Lundbeck Foundation, does to spur brain research – and of the ability it affords our organization to manage our business always with an eye on our mission to improve the quality of life for people living with neurological and psychiatric disorders – and I am happy to see that we are rewarding the kinds of international collaborations that I believe will drive our next generation of discoveries that patients urgently need.