Saturday, February 16, 2008

Brain Research in the Netherlands 2005-2015

"We should recognize that brain, mind and body are one."

Ron de Kloet, professor medical pharmacology

The brain is an organ with billions of nerve cells, each with over one thousand interconnections, and thus representing a vast complexity. We already know a great deal about this part of our body, but there is even more that we currently do not know. However, unmistakably, this organ determines everything we think and do. Unfortunately, one in three people in the Netherlands will at some point in their lives be confronted with a brain disorder that will lead to physical and/or mental limitations, and this number will continue to rise in the next decades, as the result of a society that is aging as well as growing ever more complex.

Anything to do with the brain has enormous societal importance. It is our brain that enables us to keep on learning throughout our lives and to continuously adapt our social skills to an ever-changing environment. Brain diseases, brain injury, psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, the sequelae of aging, and stress-related afflictions all have far-reaching consequences for our functioning in society. A large part of current health care expenses is related to the treatment of brain disorders. For 2004, these expenses were estimated at 18 billion euro in the Netherlands. For the same year, the percentage of people with a brain disorder was estimated at 30-40% of the total population. Unless the Netherlands invests sufficiently in brain research, society will have every reason to blame politics as well as science in ten years’ time.

Improvements in the clinical approach to brain disorders require adequate fundamental scientific research. Every breakthrough in neuroscience has been brought about by close collaboration between fundamental and clinical researchers. Over the past two decades of the previous century, novel imaging techniques have shown, for the first time, the actual functioning of the live human brain. At the same time, researchers have taken the first steps to understand how the brain works at the molecular level. The great challenge for the 21st century will be to link our knowledge of the single neuron to that of the brain as a whole. How does consciousness come about? What about memory, perception, movement, language and emotion? How do we learn things?

As our understanding of the brain grows, the possibilities to intervene will increase. Will it be possible, eventually, to counter memory loss or regain functions lost as a result of brain damage caused by brain tumors, traumatic injury, neurodegenerative disease or other neurological or psychiatric diseases? In the next decade neuroscientists will have to make serious progress in order to be able to answer these questions.

This strategy report - Brain Research in the Netherlands 2005-2015 - explains the societal need for brain research, describes the most important scientific developments in brain research of the past decade, particularly in the Netherlands, and formulates the main scientific challenges for the next decade. The Netherlands has a strong tradition in neuro-ethology, (behavioral) pharmacology, neuroendocrinology, cognitive psychology, neuroanatomy and human neurophysiology. In the past ten years, the Netherlands has also made excellent contributions to a number of other fields. This report identifies Integrative Neuroscience as the greatest challenge for the next 10 years and indicates how Dutch brain research may best contribute to the expected societal and scientific developments.

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