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Mental disorders are disorders of the brain

Depression, anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorders, alcohol and drug dependence, dementia and Parkinsons disease are just a few examples of disorders of the brain. The size, the burden and cost of brain disorders in the EU is immense, and has so far been underestimated, as Prof. Dr. Hans Ulrich Wittchen emphasized at the Official Press Conference to the 20th ECNP Congress for Neuropsychopharmacology in Vienna (October 13-17, 2007). This week over 6000 psychiatrists, neurologists, psychologists and neuroscience researchers and practitioners from all over the world join in Vienna at the 20th ECNP Congress to present and discuss the latest breakthroughs, the progress and the future perspectives in the fields of the origin and treatment of mental disorders, disorders of the brain, neuropsychopharmacology and related fields.

Increasing Lifetime Risk Unmet Needs

Mental disorders such as anxiety and depressive disorders are disorders of the brain and involve complex patterns of disturbances of cognition (such as perception, attention, memory), affect and emotion (such as depressed mood, panic), somatic functioning (e.g. appetite, heart rate variability) and behaviour. These patterns and disturbances are all associated with disturbances in the transmitter systems of the brain and the central nervous system. What is special about most mental disorders is that they predominantly manifest early in life, before the age of 20. They are also associated across the life span with a high risk of developing complications and other so called comorbid disorders.

Conservatively estimated 27% of the adult EU-population has been suffering from at least one mental disorder in the past 12 months, such as depression, specific phobias, somatoform disorders, alcohol- and drug dependence, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or eating disorders. The estimated total number of affected is 82,7 million in any given year.

Over the life span, the majority of the population in the EU will suffer a mental disorder at least once in their lifetime, and there are indications that mental disorders are on the rise. For instance, over the past decades there has been a steep increase in the risk for depression, especially among women. The reasons for this development is up to now poorly understood, but seems to be most likely linked to socioeconomic changes of modern life in industrialized regions.

Unlike to somatic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, the vast majority of people affected by mental disorders remain unrecognized and untreated by the health care system. The large degree of unmet needs of patients with mental disorders represents a global problem. The vast majority of disorders of the brain remain untreated, particularly in adolescents and young adults, Wittchen said. Typically, treatment starts late after many years of illness when severe complications are present. But even among those treated rarely appropriate treatment is provided. As an effect of early onset, high prevalence, persistence, associated disability and low treatment rates, the resulting disability is tremendously high.

Health Economic Costs

Mental disorders rank as number one in terms of direct and indirect health economic costs, with a total estimated cost of Euro 294.719 billion. The vast majority of cost is not due to treatment costs, but rather due to indirect costs, which marks the loss of productivity as a consequence of disease (e.g. disability, premature death or retirement). For mental disorders extremely high indirect costs and relatively low direct costs contrast high direct costs typical for somatic disease. For instance, pharmaceutical costs account for only 3% of total costs for mental disorders, whereas for diabetes the rate is 13% and for cardiovascular disease 15%. The outpatient care for mental disorders accounts for only 12% of the total costs.

The Role of Neuropsychopharmacology and ECNP

The brain is undoubtedly the most complex organ of animals and human beings. Modern neuroscience techniques like imaging have been instrumental to understand the complexity of the human brain. The communication among the billions of nerve cells (neurons) in the brain is ensured by extremely complex transmitter systems and mechanisms of various kinds. The field of neuropsychopharmacology is the core field to study these mechanisms and to influence them within the clinical target, amongst others with drugs. This year"s ECNP Congress is the best platform to monitor comprehensively recent developments and breakthrough findings on all levels:

  • Basic research

  • Clinical research

  • Treatment with and without drugs

  • Translational issues (from bench to bed and back)

  • Research and education

The early onset and high burden of mental disorders particularly in females calls for systematic programs to explore the benefits of early intervention and preventive measures. The comprehensive and exciting programme of the ECNP Congress is due to the input from researchers and clinicians of all over the world, and helps defining new areas of research and to single out new therapeutic approaches to improve the lives of the millions of people who suffer from mental disorders.


Contact: Hans-Ulrich Wittchen
European College of Neuropsychopharmacology

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