Why we still don't know much about the brain

One of the ironies of Brain Awareness Week, this week, is still how little even neuroscientists know about the brain. Despite the major research inroads that have been made, when it comes to understanding how the brain functions, the reality is that we’re still just scratching at the surface.

The brain is the complex and mysterious core of who we are: it determines our personalities and preferences—why we love or hate Vegemite, or prefer rugby to AFL—and how we think, act and remember.

Definitive answers to so many questions still remain unanswered: Why do we dream? How can we improve learning? Why does cognitive impairment or dementia only affect certain people as they age, while others’ brains remain healthy? 

Brain disorders a costly but important challenge

Finding solutions becomes particularly urgent when hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods are at stake. Dementia is now Australia’s second-biggest killer after heart disease, and currently more than 350,000 people live with the condition. Sufferers, of course, don’t live in isolation—they are cared for by an estimated 1.2 million others. Dementia is, in every respect, a costly disease; the emotional and social toll it takes on patients, relatives and carers is matched only by its financial burden. $4.9 billion was directly spent on health and aged care for patients in the 2009–2010 financial year.  

Thanks to medical advances, life expectancy is now greater than ever before. In Australia, our children will live almost 20 years longer than their grandparents. The downside of this rise is that the burden of dementia and other neurological diseases will only increase as our population ages. At the current rate, dementia will affect nearly 900,000 Australians by 2050, and by 2060 will outstrip spending for any other health condition. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of effective treatments currently available. An exciting development has been using non-invasive ultrasound technology, developed by our researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland. The treatment has been successful in removing plaques and reducing symptoms in animal models of Alzheimer’s.

Dealing with the tide of neurological disease will become one of the biggest challenges of our time. Neuroscience advances in the 21st century will revolutionise healthcare just as the development of vaccines and antibiotics did in the past 200 years.

As much as neuroscience research requires time, it also requires money. Competitive government grants are incredibly difficult to secure, and in Australia, government funding doesn’t provide for the costs required to keep research institutes running. If we want to keep Queensland as a worldwide epicentre for neuroscience research, a combined funding effort is needed. Investing in neuroscience research is crucial. We can’t afford to let dementia and other diseases of an ageing population become another problem for our children to inherit.

Professor Pankaj Sah is Director of the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland. Brain Awareness Week (BAW), March 13–19, is the global campaign to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.
 

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Last updated:
18 May 2017