Analysis: Brain Projects

Article excerpt

LONDON, United Kingdom (Reuters) - Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are placing big new bets on the future of brain science, just as much of the pharmaceutical industry retreats from the field.

Brain disorders ranging from depression to Alzheimer's are extracting an ever greater social and economic cost around the globe. But while the United States and European Union are funding ambitious efforts in neuroscience, the private sector is often skeptical about the prospect of rapid breakthrough cures.

Many pharmaceutical companies harbor deep doubts about whether neuroscience is worth their investment dollars as a boom period for once highly profitable psychiatric medicines comes to an end and new drugs prove hard to find.

President Barack Obama unveiled a major initiative last week to map the individual cells and circuits that make up the human brain. That announcement followed a EU decision in January to award up to $1.3 billion to a Swiss-based project aiming to create a synthetic "computerized" brain.

The two programs - Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) and the Human Brain Project - have been compared with the Human Genome Project, the 13-year venture to map human DNA completed in 2003. In fact, they are even more ambitious, given their open-ended nature.

Yet it will be years, possibly decades, before the findings of these programs make any significant difference to the millions of people worldwide suffering from brain disorders - a challenge for both neuroscientists and industry.

Brain science may be on the cusp of a new era, but in the short term it is proving frustratingly hard to improve on the uneven effectiveness of existing drugs - such as the 25-year-old antidepressant Prozac - or to find new Alzheimer's treatments. …