In 2014, Americans are expected to spend a whopping 20% of their total income on their health.
This will be a tremendous burden on the US economy, but it also has far reaching implications for healthcare itself. One particularly challenging area is the wellbeing of our brains. This is in large part due to the ever-increasing life-expectancy throughout the Western world, which means that neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are becoming more and more prevalent.
35 million people around the world suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and this number is expected to double over the next 20 years. Consider that the elderly population is the fastest growing segment of many Western countries and that in the U.S., people aged 65 and over will comprise half of the total population by 2030. That means that in the not so distant future, half of the U.S. population will be out of the workforce, and that a large portion of them will be in need of extremely expensive healthcare. That’s a highly toxic financial equation, one which the US economy will unlikely be able to bear. Couple that with the enormous personal suffering of patients and their loved ones, and we’re talking about an epidemic of tragic proportions.
The Obama administration’s $100m BRAIN initiative and the E.U.’s €1b Human Brain Project are initial signs that finding effective solutions to cure, prevent, or at least postpone Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders has become a top priority in the developed world.
But finding cures requires more than just throwing money at research centers. After decades of research, therapeutic developments for neurodegenerative diseases have been very limited, providing some alleviation of symptoms, but ultimately, failing to change the course of the disease.
What we need is a fundamental overhaul of the way we carry out our research.
Finding cures for brain-related diseases by deciphering the human brain – which many scientists consider to be the most complex object in the universe – will require a broad interdisciplinary approach, combining the knowhow of researchers, technologists and other thought-leaders from the widest-possible range of fields.
It will also require a radical shift in the funding process. For the most part, private and governmental grants – which account for the majority of research funds – commit money to proposed projects, not to their outcome. Until now, donors and foundations have traditionally funneled their money into institutions, research facilities or even university chairs for marquee names. But what they ought to be doing is funding the results themselves.
Luckily, this looks to be changing, in large part due to the influence of technologists and entrepreneurs, who see how the cross-platform lessons of innovation can be implemented in solving our very complicated health issues. Thankfully, a new model that seeks to integrate behavioral, organizational and technological frameworks by matching up experts from different – and sometimes even distant – fields is slowly emerging.
One innovative organization which I take part in, Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), champions this new collaborative model. IBT advances the development of technological solutions for brain-related conditions by behaving like a “social organization,” bringing together a diverse group of people who might otherwise never have had a chance to meet and exchange ideas.
Scientists, clinicians, engineers, designers and programmers gather with entrepreneurs, investors and multinational executives under the auspices of this umbrella organization – which operates largely on results-based funding – to catalyze innovation in brain technology. Hopefully, this model will catch on, and it will not be uncommon for other organizations to have boards in which angel and corporate investors sit alongside industrial engineers, brain, computer, and even rocket scientists.
Social-professional internet forums are also helping to abolish old-fashioned models of funding by “flattening” (to borrow Tom Friedman’s term) the playing field of science.
Open research sites like UACTIFY generate funds by acting as “idea superhighways” with a focus on solutions, not on hypotheses — commonly known as “Challenge funding.” Challenge funding is not just about changing the sequence of activities to make sure goals are attained prior to funding, it is also about making sure that the goals themselves are not set arbitrarily, but instead are measured against a community of knowledge. For example, by setting milestones and funding their attainment, the challenge funding organization Prize4life was able to achieve unprecedented results for curing ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Internet-based research forums can also ensure that those who were not previously involved in finding solutions can be introduced into the mix. Public involvement in these sites is critical for a number of reasons, not least of all for boosting creativity within all the communities involved. The public can also provide – and demand – additional funding, and request further scrutiny and accountability. But most of all, the public can help in determining which of their personal pains must be addressed… and how.
Whether online or off, the wisdom of the masses – which ranges from practitioners to the patients themselves – can now be harnessed to find promising cures for degenerative diseases.
The future of brain research and its funding was a central theme at Israel’s first ever International Brain Technology Conference, Israel BrainTech 2013, which took place this October in Tel Aviv. The conference hosted leaders from a wide range of disciplines including Nobel Laureates, investors, scientists and technologists, with “mind-blowing” results. by: Professor Michal Beeri
Prof. Michal Beeri is Director at the Sagol Neuroscience Research Center at the Sheba Medical Center and serves on the leadership team of Israel Brain Technologies, organizers of BrainTech Israel 2013.