In recent years, there has been increased awareness of the impact of neurological diseases, brain injuries, and mental illnesses on people living with these conditions — and on their families, caregivers, the economy and society. There are about 1,000 disorders of the brain, and it is estimated that one in three Canadians will be directly impacted by them at some point in their lives. 

The enormous burden of brain disorders

Brain disorders carry an economic burden that is greater than cancer and cardiovascular disease combined.  But, funding for research to understand, diagnose, treat, and eventually cure brain disorders — as well as funding to understand the brain — has historically lagged behind investments in these other areas. That situation is changing. A global effort to understand the human brain is underway. Currently, nine large-scale brain projects across four continents have been launched or are in the planning phases. Canada, the United States, the European Union, Japan, China, and other countries have committed an amount upwards of $7-billion over the next decade to new initiatives to better understand the brain and brain disease.

A culture of collaborative brain research

Canada’s contributions to brain research began in 1934 when Dr. Wilder Penfield founded the Montréal Neurological Institute and Hospital — which became the birthplace of neuroscience, the largest center dedicated to the brain in Canada, and among the largest in the world. A seamless integration of research and patient care was and remains the vision, and is a model that has been adopted around the world. Since that time, brain research centres have been established across Canada and Canadian scientists have made some of the most important discoveries in this field.

“There are about 1,000 disorders of the brain, and it is estimated that 1 in 3 Canadians will be directly impacted.”

As researchers delve deeper into our understanding of the brain, the complexity of the challenge increases, and so too does our need to join different disciplines and approaches.  Collaborations are now extending beyond linking researchers and clinicians. Understanding the brain is no longer just about neuroscience — it’s about joining disciplines such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, and ethics. Canadian research has always been a collaborative effort and that spirit is all the more important in today’s context.

Partnerships that are enabling a Canadian brain community

New funding models are also emerging, with Canada leading a public-private partnership to increase investments in brain research. In 2011, the Government of Canada established the Canada Brain Research Fund, through which it is matching funds raised by Brain Canada and its partners on a one-to-one basis to create a $200-million fund for Canadian brain research. Grants are supporting all stages of the research process, from basic discovery, to the translation of discoveries into useful products or services, and their application to people with brain disorders.

While Brain Canada does not fund outside this country, we encourage and foster linkages between Canada and other countries. Our partnerships with the Alzheimer’s Association and the U.S. BRAIN Initiative are examples of how Canada is working with international partners to accelerate the pace of discovery. Our partnership with Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is enabling Canadian researchers to be part of a network that spans 17 countries.

Partnerships with Canadian health charities are ensuring that our efforts include the voices of patients, families, and caregivers, and that we are advancing our understanding of specific diseases — while also contributing more broadly to understanding common underlying mechanisms shared by multiple conditions. 

Canada has been — and is — at the forefront of brain research.  For it to remain forefront we need to ensure that we increase funding to a level that meets the capacity of Canada’s world-class researchers. With timely investments in research and infrastructure, Canadian scientists will continue to make major contributions to the global quest to understand the brain and to promoting brain health — to the benefit of all Canadians.