Lynn Raymond is president of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience. Joyce Gordon is chair of the Neurological Health Charities Canada, and CEO of Parkinson Canada
The human brain is the most complex biological structure in the known universe, containing hundreds of billions of cells and trillions of connections that control every thought, feeling, movement and function of our bodies. Despite major advances in recent decades, our understanding of the brain is still frustratingly limited, driving the world's most costly medical conditions and leading to immeasurable personal and societal tolls. In Canada alone, neurological and mental health disorders cost the economy in excess of $61-billion per year including direct and indirect costs – and that number is likely underestimated.
A deepened understanding of the brain is critical to improve the health and well-being of Canadians and research is foundational to an all-encompassing brain strategy.
Canada is known globally for its strengths in research collaboration. Our country has over two dozen institutions focused exclusively on neuroscience and mental health research, establishing brain science as one of our greatest areas of research strength. We boast over a dozen pan-Canadian consortia or networks spanning the research areas of movement disorders, action and perception, traumatic brain injury, neurodegeneration, stroke, depression, autism, epigenetics, neurodevelopmental disorders and mental health.
Yet, unlike other countries, we lack a national brain research strategy to take full advantage of our current expertise and investment. Such a strategy would increase collaboration and cooperation amongst researchers, clinicians and other vital service providers. It would enhance the development and distribution of tools, increase sharing of data and allow Canada to join the international effort in brain research. A Canadian brain research strategy would accelerate the pace of discovery science and its subsequent translation into treatments. Patients would receive better and more integrated care.
This cannot be achieved through investment alone. What Canada needs now is a cultural shift in terms of how we approach brain research. The Canadian government's fundamental science review has recommended a meaningful increase in the base budgets of the tri-councils: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. We fully and enthusiastically support this recommendation and envision an approach to Canadian brain research that is funded and coordinated through the tri-councils. Such a model would be an ideal platform for encouraging and managing effective public-private funding partnerships for maximum impact.
To neglect a Canada-wide investment in brain research risks losing our competitive edge and squandering the great discoveries Canadians have made thus far. To invest elsewhere without first ensuring a healthy tri-council foundation would severely hinder new discoveries that invariably result from investigators inquisitively exploring on the edge of the unknown. By thoughtfully building on existing investments and uniting and coordinating activities across the country, we can achieve outcomes greater than the sum of what individually-funded brain research programs can accomplish alone and truly make a difference.
Today, we can clearly see the impact of our most pressing brain health challenges: More than 2,400 people died in 2016 as a result of the opioid crisis and hundreds of thousands of Canadians are unable to work due to challenges with mental health and addictions; indigenous youth have a suicide rate that is five to seven times higher than non-Indigenous youth; more than half of individuals receiving home care or living in long-term care facilities have a brain condition and over the next 20 years, the number of Canadians living with dementia (Alzheimer's and related dementias) and Parkinson's disease is expected to almost double – as are the total annual health costs for these conditions.
Directly or indirectly, every Canadian is affected by conditions such as dementia or stroke and by the mental and behavioural health challenges. That burden is growing steadily. With improved coordination of research and stringent peer-review of funding decisions by Canada's respected research councils, Canadian taxpayers and donors can be assured that urgently-needed investments in brain and mental health will achieve maximal value. With a unified effort and a meaningful investment in brain science, Canada's researchers, clinicians and decision-makers in all walks of life will be far better equipped to respond to the urgent needs of 36 million fellow citizens.