We must build on this momentum and renew our investment in brain research. Now is not the time to abandon investing in fundamental science.

The numbers speak for themselves.

One in three Canadians say they’re struggling with their mental health. One in three Canadians say that depression and anxiety are a major problem in their social circle.

Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Canada and accounts for approximately half of the overall burden of disease for young people between the ages of 15 and 29. What is worse, we are losing ground rather than making progress. While we’ve witnessed improvements in outcomes for cancer, HIV, and heart disease in recent years, we’ve recently seen significant declines in mental health.

Concerns over the economic downturn are on the rise, as is food insecurity, creating stress that continues to affect Canadians’ mental health.

We see the scale of the problem, but we understand too little about the biological mechanisms of mental illnesses and the brain itself. The brain is our most complex organ and the least understood. Long-standing theories about the causes of mental illnesses are still being debated in the scientific community as we realize how much more we need to learn.

We need basic research on the brain to better understand how it functions in health, as well as in illness. One-size-fits-all solutions rarely work, so we need to know more about the factors that affect the progression of illness, how people experience illnesses differently, and why certain treatments work for some and not others. We know we need to enhance capacity for research on mental illness, and to rapidly translate that knowledge into solutions for patients.

So how will we do it?

We leverage our strengths. Canada was — and must continue to be — a world leader in neuroscience, with expertise in informatics, artificial intelligence, and imaging. Our researchers have learned to collaborate to tackle complex questions.

Now is not the time to abandon investing in science

Brain Canada is harnessing these strengths and moving basic research on mental illness forward. As a catalyst and convener of Canada’s brain research community, Brain Canada funds big teams doing bold research, with a focus on supporting high risk, high reward projects. It develops research talent, and enables platforms that researchers need to share knowledge and data and learn from each other to accelerate progress. We must build on this momentum and renew our investment in brain research. Now is not the time to abandon investing in fundamental science.

Dr. Gustavo Turecki leads a Brain Canada-supported platform at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal. Called the Douglas Bell Canada Brain Bank, it houses more than 3,600 brains from individuals who experienced neurodegenerative diseases and mental illnesses and makes samples available to researchers in Canada and around the world. These samples have been used to discover important facets of brain health, such as the effects of early life adversity, which is a major predictor of mental illness; the precise cell types affected in men who have suffered from major depression and how they differ from those affected in women; and indicators of a patients’ response to treatment for depression, to name a few examples. Making platforms such as the Brain Bank available and accessible helps to build capacity and offers a cost-effective way to share cutting edge equipment, technology, and services, enabling bold research that no researcher could pursue on their own.

This is just one way that organizations like Brain Canada are advancing basic research on mental illness and working to improve patient outcomes.

On March 19, Brain Canada, together with our partners Krembil Foundation, and Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI), with the support of The Erika Legacy Foundation and Power Corporation of Canada, announced the recipients of a multimillion-dollar research program dedicated to addressing the sex gap in basic mental health research. The Basics of Better Mental Health recipients, Dr. Stephanie Borgland, Dr, Liisa Galea, and Dr. Susan George, are investigating mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, and postpartum depression, with a significant emphasis on sex-specific factors or differences. Despite significant sex differences in health and disease, women have historically not been adequately represented in basic research. Basic research studies often use only male animal models under the false impression that hormones in female animals would introduce significant variability in the results. In consequence, many treatments in use today were never tested in female animal models despite the possibility of sex differences in the treatment’s mechanism and efficacy. The inclusion of sex-specific biological considerations is instrumental in understanding the biological roots of mental health conditions. We take great pride in supporting these three recipients who are at the forefront of addressing sex gaps in brain research.

Canada needs to invest in brain research and prioritize the knowledge it will generate to make meaningful progress and realize the potential for approaches like personalized medicine for mental illness. Now is the time to build on our strengths as a country and support research to advance our understanding of the brain — in health and illness — for the benefit of all Canadians.

Dr. Viviane Poupon is President and CEO of Brain Canada, a non-profit organization headquartered in Montreal that amplifies, accelerates, and funds brain research in Canada.