Early brain repair and protection


EJN is an international journal published on behalf of the Federation of the European Neuroscience Societies (FENS). As was the case for the prior biennial FENS Forum in Amsterdam, we have produced a Special Issue of EJN for the 2012 FENS Forum in Barcelona.

This Special Issue addresses a ‘riskier’ theme than the traditional focus of such issues, which centered on a particular research topic or approach. Motivated by the widespread debate about the limited translational successes of the neurosciences, we hope to engage in a discussion of research strategies that may enhance our understanding of neuronal disease processes and contribute to the identification of novel therapeutic approaches.

Traditional neuroscience research on brain disease (to the extent that this term can be applied to our still young science) has largely focused on understanding brain function in patients and animal models which reproduce symptoms that define psychiatric or neurodegenerative disorders. Likewise, efforts to develop treatments have been guided by, and tested against, clinical symptoms and thus focused on improving fully expressed or even advanced-stage diseases: for example, research into the removal or repair of the neuronal and proteomic markers that are the product of decades of neuropathological decline and define the end stages of brain disorders. This research strategy has arguably done little to significantly improve the treatment of the majority of patients with brain disorders, and promises to offer, at best, symptomatic relief.

For most brain disorders, there is evidence pointing to early developmental neuronal, behavioral and cognitive abnormalities and/or vulnerabilities that evolve over time and interact with additional risk factors. Symptoms emerge when the capacity of the nervous system to cope with these deficiencies is exhausted. Therefore, therapeutic interventions to prevent or lessen the severity of such disease processes will probably need to begin early in life and, depending on the particular mode of treatment, continue throughout the life of the patient.

Implementing such treatment strategies may be considered to be unrealistically ambitious or even infeasible. However, attempting to repair brain circuits that are in a state of advanced disintegration, or to improve symptoms that are a product of decades of functional decline, would appear to be even more lofty goals.

We suspect that most researchers would agree with the view that advances in the translational neurosciences requires adoption of research strategies which target the interactions of subtle and diverse genetic vulnerabilities with developmental and environmental risks or ‘hits’ as well as brain maturation and aging. While conceptually intuitive, this view implies enormous practical challenges, in part because it entails the much-derided call for ‘big science’ as a range of specialists would need to be brought to the collaborative table.

For this Special Issue of EJN, we asked authors to contribute articles that discuss, describe and speculate about the shifts in research strategy that may be required in order to develop a new translational neuroscience, focusing on ontogenetic mechanisms, models and early interventions. We encouraged authors to write manuscripts that may represent a somewhat atypical mixture of a position paper and a review, focusing on the potential strength and impact of developmental, translational strategies and on the challenges of integrating new basic and clinical approaches.

The result of our call, this Special Issue, properly represents the intellectual diversity and richness of our science. The contributions range from discussing established perspectives and building on tried and tested research approaches to more speculative and perhaps even provocative hypotheses, outlines for research, and discussion of research policy. To reiterate, we encouraged such a departure from our usual factual tone.

The FENS Forum is the appropriate occasion for initiating and stimulating such a discussion. Please participate and chime in, on our blog [http://www.ejnblog.org], and download the EJN App to keep up with the newest from your society’s journal.