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The Tories' buried budget line: Funding for brain research

Being a political and largely partisan exercise, the lead-up, tabling and response to a federal budget is all well-choreographed and fairly predictable.

The governing party trumpets its brilliant ideas and the opposition parties focus on what they think is missing and pummel the government for its failings.

On rare occasions though, the government actually undersells one of its moves and the opposition parties keep silent lest they utter praise.

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A case in point is a seemingly throwaway phrase uttered by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: "We will invest in world-class research through support for … Brain Canada."

Those few words came with a promise to invest $100-million in the Canada Brain Research Fund. The venture is largely unknown, but it's bold and innovative. It's a partnership of the research financing charity Brain Canada, Neurological Health Charities Canada, the Canadian Association for Neuroscience and, now, the government of Canada.

The new federal money would bring the fund's budget to $300-million over five years. The money, which could still fall through if the government is toppled, comes in equal measures from private enterprise, health charities (whose donors are big and small) and government, a shining example of intersectoral and intrasectoral co-operation that is all too rare in the health field.

There are more neurons in each of our brains than there are stars in the sky. The brain is a vast, largely unknown universe ripe for exploration and discovery.

The research, and the knowledge it will generate, is also desperately needed.

We talk in flowery terms about the importance of building a "knowledge economy" or a "brain economy," but we have few policies in place to make the concept a reality.

If our future prosperity lies in knowledge, we need to nurture our most precious natural resource - our brains. One way to do that is larger and smarter investments in education. But another key component is preventing and treating brain diseases, which are a $60-billion a year drain on the economy annually.

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An estimated 5.5 million Canadians live with a neurological condition. There is a broad spectrum of conditions, psychiatric diseases, neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's, brain and spinal cord injuries, concussion and stroke. One in five people will also suffer from a mental health problem like depression some time in their life.

All told, one in three Canadians can expect to suffer a brain disease, close to the numbers who will have to deal with cardiovascular disease or cancer. But, unlike cancer and heart disease, we know little about the causes and triggers of brain diseases; hence, we have fewer treatments.

It is a situation that cries out for research and response.

Research dollars are only part of the puzzle. What the key players in the field want - and what the public should expect - is a more encompassing brain strategy.

In January, 2010, the NHCC - a coalition of 26 health charities - released its proposal for what needs to be done to tackle brain disease effectively.

The seven-point brain strategy includes a call for:

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* Research: Accelerated and targeted investment in neuroscience research;

* Prevention: Very little is known about how to prevent brain diseases. Most seem to develop slowly over time and have triggers that bring symptoms to the surface, sometimes brutally. Unlocking those secrets could have a dramatic impact;

* Caregiver support: Brain diseases are among the most debilitating. Family caregivers - from the mother of a teenager with schizophrenia to the daughter of a man with Lewy body dementia - can face a crushing burden of demands along with social isolation. In the budget, Ottawa announced some welcome tax breaks for caregivers but, again, that is only a small part of a safety net that is required, especially if we want to keep people living in the community;

* Income security: A disability, especially an invisible and misunderstood one like a brain disease, is often a fast-track to poverty, and a spiralling downward into homelessness and addiction. Targeted income support programs are needed, as are supportive housing programs;

* Integrated care and support: Neurological conditions are often degenerative, so care and treatment needs change over time. But our health and social services programs tend to operate in silos and they are not known for their flexibility. People with dementia and those with severe psychiatric conditions (and their caregivers) in particular could benefit greatly from a better continuum of care;

* Genetic privacy: Our ability to identify genetic anomalies that predispose people to neurological disorders far outstrips treatment options. This opens people up to discrimination by insurers and employers, a reality that needs to be addressed in human rights and privacy legislation.

* Public awareness and education: People with brain diseases still face a lot of stigma and discrimination, much of it born of ignorance. We also tend to have a defeatist, gloomy view of brain disease, unlike the fighting spirit people embrace when they have a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease. Knowledge can empower.

It should be noted too that a brain strategy does not obviate the need for more specialized plans, like a mental health strategy (which we have already invested in) and a dementia strategy (investment in which is horribly overdue).

A healthy brain helps individuals lead productive, high-quality lives. And a nation of healthy brains makes for a more productive and wealthy (in all senses of the term) country.

A brain strategy is one way of saying these things matter.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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