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Brain health and disease in the digital era: CORDIS attends the 2019 IMI Stakeholders Forum

The EU- and industry-funded Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) held its annual Stakeholders Forum in Brussels on a very rainy 12 June, the venue being the gorgeous Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The topic discussed: Brain health and disease, and how digital technologies are transforming the search for new treatments and patient care.

Digital Economy

The world is rapidly changing as digital technologies make themselves ever more present in our everyday lives. They’re shaking up key sectors of society, including the healthcare system. Neuroscience is one such field that is being transformed by digital advances and this was the key talking point at this year’s IMI Stakeholders Forum. As stated by Wolfgang Burtscher, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s DG Research & Innovation, who spoke at the beginning of the forum, understanding the complexities of the human brain is one of humanity’s biggest challenges and that using new technologies such as machine learning, Artificial Intelligence and Big Data are going to be game-changers for finding solutions for various brain disorders and diseases. A major healthcare challenge Indeed, this is becoming an increasingly important healthcare issue. Up to 18.7 million EU citizens are expected to suffer from dementia by 2050. Some estimates put the figure of Europeans suffering from mental health distress to be as high as 38 %. Then of course, millions of Europeans are living their daily lives with other brain-related conditions, such as epilepsy, stroke, migraine, addiction and sleep disorders. Europe is at the heart of the global quest to tackle these various brain disorders and as your CORDIS writer saw clearly whilst sitting in the audience, the IMI is determined to be at the forefront, with innovation and adapting healthcare systems to twenty-first century realities and opportunities the key. As succinctly said by speaker Dhavel Patel, Executive Vice-President of UCB, there is a need to move towards a ‘learning’ healthcare system that rapidly adapts to new innovations, such as the latest cutting-edge digital technologies. Indeed, in cooperation with the IMI (as well as DG RTD, the Commission’s DG CONNECT, the European Research Council and the Executive Agency for SMEs), CORDIS has recently published a Results Pack on how the digital revolution is transforming EU-funded research, showcasing 11 projects that are leading the way in EU research in this field. Catching up with two IMI project coordinators In fact, during the IMI Stakeholders Forum, CORDIS had the opportunity to catch up in person with two of the project coordinators that took part in our Results Pack, Dr Hugh Marston of the PRISM project and Dr Martin Hofmann-Apitius of the AETIONOMY project. When speaking about PRISM, a project that is developing a new framework that will help researchers better understand the complexity of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative illness, Dr Marston commented on how proud he was of how 'intellectually healthy' the consortium was and how PRISM was an achievement because it’s unusual for scientists to be able design a clinical research study from scratch. “PRISM is a clinical experiment, allowing scientific method to be applied to a clinical setting,” he said. “The IMI programme has given us the freedom to be completely objective, unbiased, able to develop new ideas and concepts based purely on the quantitative biological data we are collecting – letting the data take us where it leads us.” Currently, Dr Marston is seeking to build a new consortium to take PRISM and its results further. On taking part in an IMI-led initiative, he commented: “IMI allows for innovative research in a very collaborative way, offering the chance to truly undertake groundbreaking work.” Turning to AETIONOMY, a project that systematically captures and represents knowledge on neurodegenerative diseases in a computable format that represents causes and effects and that can be analysed using algorithms, coordinator Dr Hofmann-Apitius was also very positive about the opportunities that being involved with the IMI brings. “It’s great to get the different perspectives, between industry representatives and scientists,” he commented. “Really, its multi-faceted structure allows for the coming together of the coolest colleagues and outstanding scientists.” Discussing AETIONOMY specifically, he said: “I’m most proud of the fact that this was a successful project against all the odds. Given the dimension of the challenge to achieve what we have done, I’m extremely proud of how far we truly came.” Looking to the future, Dr Hofmann-Apitius says his next big challenge will be to help build bridges across the Atlantic and work towards greater collaboration in the neurodegenerative field between European and United States-based researchers. For more information, please see: Innovative Medicines Initiative