September 9, 2021 Around thirty researchers and clinicians from around the world met at Crans-Montana (VS, Switzerland) to broaden the horizon of brain research. The words interdisciplinarity, interaction and diversity of approaches dominated the conversations. According to these players in the field of neurosciences, the research culture is changing, and the system is ready for a different approach. Scientists have seized an excellent opportunity to broaden their field of interventions to treat neurological and mental illnesses. Researchers and clinicians have been able to express themselves and have an open and frank debate in a free discussion format to be repeated every year at Crans-Montana.
Imagine the story of a person who has lost their keys in a car park at night. “Why are you looking for them here, under the streetlamp?” “Well, it’s the only place where I can see.” Nowadays, the neurosciences concentrate essentially on what is visible, what has already been studied.
One such example of this are Amyloid beta protein studies, three decades of research into the same hypothesis to come up with a drug which provides relief for a tiny fraction of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, “the current research system and the way it is funded has curbed ideas which could have emerged alongside.” according to Prof. Pierre J. Magistretti, co-president of the summit.
A challenging system
The academic research system mainly operates with funding that researchers must request regularly. These steps are certainly necessary, but they tend to become time consuming leaving researchers little time to start risky projects which could potentially lead to disruptive advances. Indeed, the need for short-term accountability is at odds with research, which is a long-term endeavour.
¨Furthermore, this system does not encourage risk-taking, and favours research whose outcome is predictable, which can limit the construction of knowledge” explains Prof. Luigi Pulvirenti, co-president of the summit. This is also the case with the race for publications, as the recognition of researchers is mainly based on the number of articles published in scientific journals.
A new era of discoveries about the brain
“The example of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Synapsy illustrates the transposition between basic research and therapeutic developments. This interdisciplinary centre has financed the training of 25 clinicians-researchers, 5 of whom are now Professors at the Universities of Lausanne and Geneva. Young psychiatrists in training will be exposed to neurosciences and neuroscientists exposed to psychiatry and what happens in clinical practice.” explains Prof. Pierre J. Magistretti and also, “it’s by being confronted with other approaches that you find new ideas and therapeutic targets.” The role of these clinicians-researchers is key: to help relate research to specific clinical perspectives.
Proof-of-concept funding is another way of making quicker progress. “We need more funding systems that permit some risk taking. In Switzerland we are fortunate to have the Swiss National Science Foundation which accepts some risk taking. This model can serve as an example”, adds Prof. Pierre J. Magistretti. Scientists are also thinking about the emergence of interdisciplinary research centres, strengthened ties with industry and strategic collaborations where the different disciplines speak to each other.
The current research system tends to promote self-referencing, scientists in the field evaluate their peers with the risk of becoming locked in a monocentric bubble. ¨Researchers tend to repeat and confirm the work of their peers. But with what result? Therapies for nervous system diseases are essentially stuck the 1980s”, claims Prof. Luigi Pulvirenti, a neurologist and founder and director of the Neuroscience School of Advanced Studies. “Stakeholders crave new discoveries, not reallocations.” concludes the Professor.
Neurotechnologies: the example of the “Brain Pacemaker”
While operating on a patient suffering from epilepsy, Prof. Alim Louis Benabid discovered, almost by chance, that by stimulating a nucleus of the thalamus close to the epileptic focus, the trembling due to Parkinson’s disease which his patient also had stopped. His skilfulness as a physician, neurosurgeon and his neuroscience training enabled this opening and the magnificent invention which has already helped more than 200,000 patients with Parkinson's disease in their daily lives around the world.
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