Environmental Factor, August 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Hrynkow Addresses Embassy Science Officers
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS Associate Director Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D. gave a talk June 24 on "Perspectives on Global Neuroscience" to members of the Washington Science Diplomats Club meeting at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Hrynkow spoke to an audience of 30 Washington, DC-based foreign embassy science officers representing more than 20 countries. She surveyed recent advances in neuroscience, the linkages between neuroscience and the diplomatic agenda, and emerging social issues that touch on the neurosciences. As one of the Institute's spokespersons on global health - and a federal liaison to the Society for Neuroscience International Affairs Committee (http://www.iac-usnc.org/?CFID=310250&CFTOKEN=39399839&jsessionid=8430c12fbdfafac3351ba4617327c5669506) , which co-hosted the event, and the U.S. committee of the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) (http://ibro.info/) - Hrynkow presented a compelling argument for science diplomats to become more aware of neuroscience and mental health as global health priorities.
At the beginning of her talk, Hrynkow discussed the organization and mission of NIH, and its Blueprint for Neuroscience Research (http://neuroscienceblueprint.nih.gov/) launched in 2004. She noted that nearly half of the 6,000 scientists working at NIH are foreign - many of them specialists in neuroscience - and that international partnerships at the scientist-to-scientist level and at the agency-to-agency level are thriving. Given the setting, she also paid tribute to European icons in neuroscience who "paved the way" for early understanding of the brain and its function - Santiago Ramón y Cajal of Spain, Rita Levi-Montalcini of Italy and Sir John Eccles, an Australian native who received his doctorate at Oxford University in the U.K.
To illustrate the burden of disease of mental illness, Hrynkow drew on the Global Burden of Disease report of the World Health Organization and projections on the global burden of disease in 2020. "By all accounts, non-communicable diseases will contribute increasingly to the global burden of disease in the year 2020," she noted, "with 70 percent of deaths in developing countries due to non-communicable causes." This so-called epidemiologic shift toward non-communicable diseases is based in part on expected strides in addressing the infectious disease agenda, she explained. "Mental illness represents an increasing proportion of the non-communicable burden of disease, with depression as the leading cause of disability in every part of the world, including poorer nations."
Describing losses to economic output and the rising toll in human suffering, Hrynkow proposed that countries pay increasing attention to issues of mental illness and neuroscience in coming years. However, poorer nations, some of which spend in the order of $23 per capita per year for health care, will struggle to provide health services for mental illness, and capacity to conduct health research to address local needs is lacking in many countries. Hrynkow pointed to two rays of hope. First, according to the Disease Control Priorities Project (http://dcp-3.org/dcp2) , with existing drugs and with community service, some mental illnesses can be managed even in the poorest of settings. Second, an array of capacity building programs, including those supported by NIH, the IBRO and the Human Frontier Science Program (http://www.hfsp.org/) , are making a difference in building much-needed neuroscience capacity in low- and mid-income nations.
Hrynkow addressed a range of social issues about which science diplomats should be aware, with stigma topping the list. "Stigma not only discourages individuals from seeking care," she noted, "but it also contributes to under-recognition and under-reporting of diseases. In order to make evidence-based decisions on health care policies and programs, it is critical to know the magnitude of the problem, and stigma stymies those efforts." Hrynkow concluded with her impressions about the stunning advances in neuroscience over the past decades and the need for societies to tackle the tough social and ethical challenges presented by the technical achievements.