As the lifespan of Canadians increases, so does the incidence of age-related brain diseases.  More than 15 percent of Canadians 65 and older are living with cognitive impairment including dementia, and this figure is expected to double in the next 20 years. The current economic burden of neurodegenerative diseases is estimated to be $33 billion per year. Brain and mental health disorders, which already affect one in three Canadians, are the major Canadian health challenge of the 21st century. 

The good news is that our understanding of the brain, in health and disease, is accelerating, thanks to research. Ninety percent of what we know about the brain was discovered in the past 20 years. For example, common mechanisms seem to be involved in disorders that, on the surface, appear quite different: defects in signal transmission from one nerve cell to another may underlie both schizophrenia and autism. We are beginning to realize that bacteria in a mother’s intestines can have a profound effect on the development of the fetal brain, possibly setting the scene for mental illness many years later. Never has there ever been a more exciting and fruitful time for brain research!

Canada leading the way

Fortunately, Canadian researchers are highly productive, distinguished by the quality of their work. Overall, Canadian researchers rank fifth in the world for the high quality of their brain research. Canadian science ranks first in pain research, second in neuroimaging, and third in mental health research.

Finding solutions to brain and mental health challenges has become a global priority. National and international collaborations like the US BRAIN Initiative and European Human Brain Project have been formed to accelerate the pace of brain research, employing new approaches involving the fusion of genomics, sophisticated imaging techniques, and computer simulations to obtain a complete brain “wiring diagram”.

"Ninety percent of what we know about the brain was discovered in the past 20 years."

Canada is addressing this challenge through participation in the G7 Global Action Against Dementia initiative and investing in a national consortium to tackle neurodegenerative disorders of aging. In 2011, the federal government established the Canada Brain Research Fund, which will match up to $100 million in funds raised by Brain Canada and its partners, to invest in research that is focused on outcomes to benefit patients.  

Navigating the journey from discovery to better diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of brain disorders will require sustained funding and greater collaboration to break down silos and leveraging insights across all disciplines. Changes in policy are required to speed the translation of research into new products and services through collaborations between academic researchers and industry, encourage uptake of the most promising innovations into the health care system, and increase awareness of what Canadians can do to maintain their own brain health.

Unlocking the mysteries of the brain will improve health and socioeconomic well-being, and provide striking insights into what it means to be human. Canada is well positioned to be a stronger leader and global partner in exploring this ultimate frontier.