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Drug Companies Are Putting Brain Research on Back Burner, Researchers Say

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Drug companies have cut back funding for research on brain and mental disorders, two new commentaries say.

This could slow efforts to find better treatments for disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease, the authors warn.

"There is a rising need for the development of drugs for neurological diseases and mental disorders," said Martin Schwab, a neuroscientist at the Brain Research Institute of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who co-authored one of the articles appearing today (March 14) in the journal Nature. "Currently there is no treatment available for some of these diseases which are often disabling and a burden to society."

In a given year, about one quarter of adults may have one or more mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). And about 5 million Americans are living with brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, and that number is climbing, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Meanwhile, Schwab said, Novartis closed a neuroscience research facility in Switzerland last year, and Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Merck and Sanofi are also cutting research on brain diseases.

Treating mental disorders is costly

The costs linked with treating serious mental illness could reach up to $300 billion a year, according to the NIMH.

"The reason why drug companies have withdrawn is because of the high costs of bringing psychiatric medicine to market and the regulatory requirements of the FDA," said Barbara Sahakian, a clinical psychologist at the University of Cambridge in England, a co-author of the other article.

Sahakian recommended that the patent life for new approved drugs be extended to help pay for drug development. That, she said, could provide an incentive for drug companies to develop more new treatments. When patents expire, other companies are free to sell generic alternatives.

She also emphasized the importance of early detection and treatment of mental health disorders, before illnesses become debilitating.

"It will be easier for treatments to be fully effective in the early stage of mental ill health," Sahakian said.

Researchers should collaborate

Schwab said another reason drug companies have pulled out of neuroscience research is they might rather invest in drugs that are likely to work for many patients with a given condition, such as stroke patients.

Mental illnesses and brain diseases, by contrast, affect people in different ways, so how well treatments work will vary as well.

Schwab added that small but meaningful treatment effects are often overlooked in trials. To avoid this, greater collaboration between basic and clinical scientists is needed, to improve how trials are designed.

"If researchers collaborate from the outset, they are more likely to produce a drug that works," Schwab and co-author Anita D. Buchli asserted.

Schwab also said it may be time to turn to other sources of funding. Insurance companies, who spend billions of dollars a year for people with brain and spinal injury, could save a substantial amount of money if they invested in research, resulting in a "true win-win situation," Schwab said.

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