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What is neurodegeneration, dementia, and mental health?

Neurodegenerative diseases are incurable and difficult to treat; as such, they can be devastating conditions with a significant impact on our society. These diseases include Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, motor neurone disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and multiple sclerosis. Of these, the dementias are responsible for the greatest societal burden of disease, with Alzheimer’s disease representing more than 60-70 per cent of the cases. Dementia is a symptom of some neurodegenerative diseases, and may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving, or language.

Neurodegenerative diseases are strongly linked with age, and the UK and other European countries have an increasingly ageing population. According to a 2017 report from the Office for National Statistics, currently 17.8 per cent of the UK population is over 65, with this figure expected to reach 24.6 per cent by 2045. A 2014 report from Alzheimer's Society estimated that in the UK, dementia costs the economy £26 billion a year.

All neurodegenerative diseases primarily affect the neurons, or cells, in the human brain. Neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system which includes the brain and spinal cord. Neurons normally don’t reproduce or replace themselves, so when they become damaged or die they cannot be replaced by the body. It is therefore vital to understand the underpinning mechanisms behind why these nerve cells degenerate or die, so we can improve diagnosis and develop effective treatments for these conditions. 

Mental health issues are estimated to affect nearly one in four people in the UK at any one time. The MRC recognises the burden that mental illness places on individuals, their families and the economy and society more widely. The cost of mental illness to the UK economy is estimated at £70-£100 billion per year; 4.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. The MRC has committed to investing in research that will lead to a better understanding of the causes of mental health issues and possible interventions. Research that improves the link between these biological mechanisms and social/environmental drivers of mental health is also vital.

Taken together, neurodegeneration, dementia, and mental health represents a significant burden on public health. As such, the MRC’s key objectives are to increase research capacity for dementias, stimulate new therapeutic discoveries and develop new diagnostic and/or preventative strategies to provide better patient care.