Neurologist: 'The brain is running all other illnesses and must be preserved with special care'

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SPECIAL REPORT / More research on the brain could help tackle diseases of all sorts but there shouldn't be a funding race between brain conditions and other diseases, says Mary Baker.  

Dr Mary Baker is the President of the European Brain Council (EBC).

She spoke to EurActiv Spain's Fernando Heller at the conference 'Understanding the brain: Where are we in 2014?' in Barcelona, Spain.

You said during the conference that you don't want there to be a race or competition between brain diseases and cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Do you feel there is a "competition" around diseases?

Health is a very competitive market. There are so many patient organisations, so many organisations in general.... and all speaking with passion! What we are trying to do in the European Brain Council space is to let them all speak with one voice.

And I really want to make it very clear: I don't want to see brain dominating over cancer or diabetes. The difference about the brain is that it is running all other illnesses and it must be preserved with special care.

What can -and should- politicians do at EU and national level?

They need to do something because the cost is running away it's very high for the European economy. And I put it very cruelly: Cancer patients are usually cured... or they die. Brain patients are continuously deteriorating. So the social costs can't be sustained. How can we do things better? Perhaps with better management and early diagnosis.

Do pharmaceutical companies invest enough in brain research and multiple sclerosis?

I think for big companies, multiple sclerosis is relevant, but it's much more difficult to deal with. I was told not long ago by a representative of a big pharmaceutical company: "You know Mary, in cancer we can take a tumor into laboratory look at it, cut it out and understand it. But we can't look in the brain until someone is dead."

The brain Is not as easy to understand. And we also have other problems: The brain is very affected by the environment. It's such an important organ to try to keep going because that's highly cost-effective for yourself, your family and your health system.

A combination of public and private sector resources could be the right answer? 

Certainly, a private-public combination could be one way to go. I think they (politicians at EU level) need to support research on the brain, more than they do because, frankly, it will be the brain that will get us out of the present troubles. It won't be the kidney or the liver. We really need to invest in this. If we don't do it, it's going to really hurt GDP in the whole of Europe. 

You put the emphasis on the economic impact of multiple sclerosis and brain diseases... What about the patients?

Of course, this is about distress, of course both for patients, to families, but it's also a very big economic question. There is an economic formula to explain this: It takes six tax-paying working people to sustain one elderly pensioner and the birth rate is falling all across Europe! 

Is this also about raising awareness among politicians? 

The message we have for the European Commission is that we need more research to try to have better understanding of the challenges, but it's also the society that plays a role in prevention. What can we do to improve our own health? We should do more, for instance, to prevent stroke, as this consumes an enormous amount of money.

Certainly, we could do much more on alcohol and tobacco prevention. Lifestyle is still important for brain diseases. And, don't forget, also for the taxpayer's money.

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