The human brain is a tangle of billions of neurons, trillions of synaptic connections and a precise balance of vital chemicals. When something inside the brain goes awry, doctors are often powerless to fix it because of its complexity.
Mental illness is a vexing and treacherous opponent, but biopharmaceutical research companies, academics, government researchers and patient groups are joining forces in hopes of restoring health to the minds of an estimated 61.5 million Americans living with a mental illness, according to a 2014 Medicines in Development report by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
More Americans are disabled by mental illnesses than any other health problem. The disease affects one in every four American adults, and it exacts more than just a human toll: annual costs associated with it—disability, healthcare and lost wages—ring in at around $317 billion.
Of further puzzlement to experts is the fact that mental illness can defy treatment options. Medications help some but not all, and may produce side effects such as weight gain and involuntary muscle movements, which make patients more likely to shun therapy. While there is evidence that existing treatments work, scientists lack a clear understanding of exactly how or why. What’s more, patients with the same diagnosis and similar symptoms may have a different underlying pathology and require different treatment methods, according to the PhRMA report.
But researchers are making headway. In 2014, there are 119 new medicines in development for mental illnesses, and new joint research initiatives aim to help clinicians better classify and diagnose the disease.
By understanding the puzzle of the brain and human genome, research efforts are seeking clearer answers about why these diseases arise, why they express themselves differently in different people and how to treat them.
These medications could help the millions living with depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, addiction, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), says the PhRMA report.
New medications in clinical trials or awaiting U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval include:
- An ADHD treatment that not only targets multiple areas involved in this brain disorder, but only has to be taken once a day
- A faster acting intranasal medication to treat depression
- A schizophrenia medication that treats the disease with fewer negative side effects
- A medication designed to help individuals battling social phobia
Also under development is a therapeutic vaccine that can interrupt cocaine addiction by blocking the substance before it reaches the brain. Cocaine use and other types of substance abuse cost an estimated $600 billion every year in the U.S. due to criminal activity, productivity losses and health issues.
Tackling mental illnesses with better medications and treatments could lead to benefits for patients and society.
“As our knowledge of the brain continues to expand, biopharmaceutical scientists are finding new, exciting ways to help patients facing depression, schizophrenia and many other disorders,” says PhRMA President and CEO John J. Castellani. “The more than 100 medicines in development today represent tremendous hope for patients, our health care system and our economy.”