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Published on: May 24, 2014
by Barbara Sahakian for Business Times:
Brain wellness in a flourishing society can be achieved within the next 10 years, aided by neuroscience, innovation and technology.
There is a great need for smart and wearable tech to monitor people’s brain health and well-being on a daily basis. There is great enthusiasm for doing this from neuroscientists and mental health experts, entrepreneurs and technology and health companies, and this is likely to be a game changer in how people monitor their brain health.
PRIOR to him leaving office, John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, asked me to scope the future of neuroscience over the next 10 years. It seemed to me that the best way to consider this was to determine how we could improve brain health for a flourishing society. Clearly, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s disease are becoming overwhelming.
Disorders of the brain pose the greatest economic health challenge. In the UK alone they cost more than £100 billion (S$211 billion) a year. This is in part because they are very common. Yet despite the fact that one in four of us will suffer from a mental health disorder at some point in our lives, we do not check ourselves on a regular basis or seek help until disorders become serious, chronic or relapsing. What we need to do is focus on good brain health and well-being at an earlier stage and throughout life, and to rapidly detect it when things go wrong.
There has been an explosion of neuroscience techniques, which can be applied to tractable, important problems. These new techniques include: induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be generated directly from adult cells; new-generation antibodies; brain receptors engineered in the lab and which only respond to specific drug molecules, otherwise known as designer-receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs, or Dreadds; and optogenetics, which uses light to control sensitised neurons in the brain. All will be game changing in terms of understanding neurotransmitters and neural circuits in healthy brains and producing new drugs and other treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders, such as depression.
For example, engineered receptors could one day be delivered into the human brain via viruses although a safe and effective way of doing this still needs to be refined. And optogenetics has already been used to study the neurotransmitter systems in the brain and understand the circuits involved in the healthy brain and in animal models of disorders, such as in autism, depression and addiction.
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