'We Have a Long Way to Go When It Comes to Understanding the Brain' One of Cardiff University's Three New Research Institutes Will Focus on the Often Overlooked Area of Neuroscience and Mental Health, as Its Director Professor Michael Owen Explains

Article excerpt

IGNORED and misunderstood, mental illness remains one of the key health challenges. Poor mental health affects some 16.7 million people in the UK today.

And, according to a report prepared for the all-Wales mental health promotion network, the total annual cost to the Welsh economy is a staggering pounds 7.2bn. Add to that the loss of quality of life for sufferers and families alike and the need to improve our understanding, and the diagnosis and treatment of these disorders becomes ever more pressing.

As a society we draw inspiration from the achievements of medical science in tackling diseases like cancer and heart disease, but when it comes to our understanding and treatment of diseases of the brain, we unfortunately still have a long way to go.

In part, this is caused by a lack of funding. Cancer research receives 25% of the UK medical research funding - five times more than mental health research. However it is also a result of the stigma still attached to mental health issues and the sheer complexity of the brain and its disorders.

Brain disorders affect virtually all of us, directly or indirectly, at one time or another. They cover the entire lifespan - from autism and ADHD in children, to adult psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's in the elderly.

In spite of advances in other areas of medicine, these diseases remain a major cause of disability and death throughout the world. The estimated cost of dementia in the UK alone is pounds 17bn a year - more than cancer and heart disease combined.

With an aging population, this figure is set to rise to pounds 50bn within the next 30 years.

It is against this backdrop that Cardiff University has made a major investment in establishing its new neuroscience and mental health research institute, alongside its plans for an entirely new research campus at Maindy Park.

The new pounds 30m Gateway Building, which is due to open in 2012, will house the new research institute. Cardiff is already recognised as a world leader in identifying the genetic origins of diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and Alzheimer's.

Professor Julie Williams' largest-ever Alzheimer's disease study helped uncover two new genes associated with the disease and was recognised as one of the top 10 medical breakthroughs of last year by Time Magazine.

Professor Nick Craddock's work on how genetic and environmental factors contribute to bipolar disorder - highlighted by visits from high-profile sufferers Stephen Fry and Kerry Katona - is helping to raise awareness and break down the social stigma that still exists with the condition.

These and other highly-successful projects have benefited hugely from the involvement of literally hundreds of sufferers from across Wales. But we can do much more.

The research institute will help take this work a step further by putting these breakthroughs to work, developing new therapies for diseases and keep Cardiff among the very best of the world's universities in this field.

More than 100 neuroscientists and researchers from across Cardiff University's different academic schools work in neuroscience and mental health research. …