Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein is the current president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF), a global nonprofit organization. Since 1987, they have awarded more than $380 million to over 5,500 grants, given to over 4,500 scientists to study brain and mental health disorders. In addition to his work with the organization, he also created the Emmy Award-nominated “Healthy Minds,” an educational series broadcast on public television and available for streaming online at www. bbrfoundation.org/healthyminds, which was produced in an effort to educate the public on psychiatry and mental health.
Borenstein, who earned his medical degree at New York University, also is the editor-in-chief of Psychiatric News, the newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine. Among his accolades are the National Alliance on Mental Illness-New York State Connie Lieber Award, the American Psychiatric Association Special Presidential Commendation, and the Federation of Organizations Community Mental Health Man of the Year Award.
Brain World recently had the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss the role of BBRF and his long-term goal of fighting and destigmatizing mental illness.
Brain World: How did you become interested in neuroscience?
Jeffrey Borenstein: I became interested in neuroscience in medical school when I decided to become a psychiatrist. It was having the opportunity to see people who had various psychiatric conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia and wanting to understand what may cause those conditions and how to best help people with those conditions.
BW: Why is science communication important?
JB: I think science communication is extremely important because there’s a lot of misperceptions about psychiatric conditions — a lot of stigma and prejudice toward people who have these conditions. Scientific information about it — having the facts, having the knowledge, makes a very big difference in people’s lives. I think that understanding psychiatric illness such as depression or schizophrenia is an illness like any other illness that it’s based on the biology of the human brain, just like pneumonia is based on the biology the human lungs and that there are treatments available to help people, and that people shouldn’t suffer in silence — that they should seek and accept help.
BW: What is the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation?
JB: The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation is the largest private funder of brain and behavior psychiatric research grants in the world, and we fund scientists around the world who are doing innovative and cutting-edge research about the brain. Our major focus is supporting young scientists who are just beginning their career in brain research. Unfortunately it’s very very hard to begin a career in brain research — in any area of medical research. We are able to give support so that people can begin to develop initial pilot data so that they could then go on and receive subsequent funding from the government and other sources.
BW: Why would you say that it’s harder? Would you say it is harder now than when the foundation began?
JB: Yes, it’s become more difficult over the last few years — the amount of funding available and real dollars hasn’t kept pace. It’s very challenging and difficult for — especially young researchers to get that kind of funding to begin a career and to continue a career. We really don’t put enough dollars into research despite the large number of people who have these illnesses and the significant number of people affected by these illnesses: whether it be themselves or a family member. We don’t put enough into research and development for understanding these conditions, and we need to.
I think there are many issues in society related to mental illness. Certainly, and foremost, people who have a variety of illnesses would benefit from improved methods of treatment and potentially methods of prevention for these conditions. In medicine now, by treating things like high blood pressure and cholesterol, we are able to have methods of prevention for heart disease. We need to similarly develop these kinds of methods for treating depression and bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, all the psychiatric conditions. We need to look at: “Are there ways to prevent these illnesses?” “Once they occur, are there better ways to treat them?” “More effective ways to treat them?”
And then there are issues like the issue of suicide prevention and the increasing rates of suicide that’s happening now and sometimes gets attention in the press when a well-known person dies of suicide, but day in and day out people are dying as a result of suicide. More people die because of suicide than because of homicide in our country. So that’s an important issue. Our returning service members who have post-traumatic stress and depression are at risk of suicide — that’s a particular area that needs more attention as well. The issue of people that are homeless and have psychiatric illnesses and are not receiving appropriate treatment and appropriate support is a very important one. So I think there are a variety of issues that are very important from a societal standpoint where improved treatment would have a tremendous impact.
BW: So how can we improve treatment? Or how can it improve?
JB: Well, over the years, treatment has improved. So that somebody who has any of these conditions in 2018, it’s a better time to have it because we have better treatments than we did in the past, but we really need to build upon that. Research into better understanding the mechanisms in the brain that can cause these conditions is extremely important so that we can better develop new approaches to treatment that have an impact. So it really is a combination of basic research about how the brain works to clinical research about what types of treatments: whether it be medication, whether it be forms of talk therapy, whether it be other types of interventions — that can better treat these conditions.