SCIENCE & SOCIETY CONFERENCE
Making sense of
The 12th EMBO|EMBL Science & Society Conference took place at the Advanced Training Centre in Heidelberg on 4–5 November 2011. More than 400 attendees listened to talks from leading experts and participated in several panel discussions on the topic Making sense of mental illness: biology, medicine and society.
Nikolas Rose, Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK, gave the introductory lecture at the Making sense of mental illness: biology, medicine and society conference in
which he outlined some of the biggest challenges facing the mental health community. Is there an epidemic of mental illness and should the empha- sis for interventions be on the brain or on the social environment of the individual? Can any diagnostic manual satisfy the needs of the professional mental health community? Furthermore, how useful are biomarkers for the diagnosis of mental health and who should judge the benefits of psychiatry?
Subsequent talks looked at the extent and societal impact of mental illness from the perspectives of different research disciplines, including the clinical and social sciences. Despite the huge impact of mental illness on society, the consensus amongst the invited speakers was that there was no clear evidence of an epidemic. However, the impact on individuals, families and society is staggering.
Hans-Ulrich Wittchen of the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, was the lead researcher on a recently published three-year study about the extent of mental illness in Europe. Every year, mental disorders affect more than 38% of the European population. In 2010, the healthcare costs for mental disorders in Europe were Euro 674 000 million. Mathias Berger
from the University Medical Centre Freiburg, Germany, noted that 4 million people in Germany alone suffer from depression, one million chronically.
In his talk on the second day of the meeting, Steven Rose, emeritus professor at the Open University, UK, called for caution in the way we approach the treatment of mental illness. “We should remain aware that we are both biological realities and social constructs. Minds do not reduce to brains and a holistic approach to mental illness should remain in sight.”
What is being done to develop new drugs and treatments? Luca Santarelli of F. Hoffmann-La Roche offered a perspective from the private sector. He acknowledged that the commitment to drug development for mental health is wavering in the pharmaceutical industry but Roche remains active. Roche is currently working on a monoclonal antibody treatment for Alzheimer’s disease that is in phase II clinical trials. The company is also looking at new ways to develop treatments for some of the different disorders that autism comprises. Sidney Kennedy, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, described deep brain stimulation interventions that are current- ly underway for intractable depression. Randomized control trials are in progress, which involve placing electrodes directly into different regions of the human brain. These clinical trials should provide an answer as to whether these types of interventions can be used more widely.
Mathias Berger from the University Medical Centre Freiburg, Germany, discussed psychotherapeutic approaches for the care of the mentally ill. Urging caution due to the lack of randomized controlled trials for psycho- therapeutic interventions, he highlighted some new “talking-focused” approaches for therapists and patients that may provide interventions for mental disorders.
Donna Franceschild, TV writer and dramatist from the UK, gave a moving personal account of what it is like to have bipolar disorder. Franceschild said she often felt invincible and has had some amazing life experiences, but somewhere along the way she could not see a future for herself. Stated Franceschild, “When was I depressive? When was I manic? These are abstract concepts outside the narrative of my life. The experience of bipolar disorder is from within.” The Making Sense of Mental Illness conference helped focus attention on some of the scientific approaches that may in the future help to treat these debilitating mental disorders that are experienced from within.
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