Over the last decade, NHS spending on neurological care has more than doubled. The NHS spent over £4.4 billion, or 4.2% of their total budget, treating neurological conditions in 2012/13. A further £2.4 billion is estimated to be spent annually on social care services, 14% of the total adult social care spend.
The main reason for this increase is that a growing number of people in the UK, over one in six of us, are living with some kind of neurological condition. These numbers are roughly in line with the global picture: the UN World Health Organisation estimates that around a billion people worldwide have a neurological condition.
There are a few inequalities that affect the level of neurological care a person might expect to receive. For instance, the impact of deprivation has to be taken into account; there is a clear mismatch between the quality of care provided in many areas of the country.
For example, evidence suggests that deaths associated with epilepsy are three times more likely to occur in the poorest areas of the UK than in the most well off.
There also needs to be more awareness of the close relationship between neurological disability and mental health conditions. The Neurological Alliance’s 2016 Patient Experience Survey found that 45% of responders described the services to meet their physical health needs as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, whereas only 19% would say the same about the available mental health support.
The brain remains the most mysterious organ in our bodies, but our understanding of it has never been greater and developments in neurological research promise much for the future. In 2017, the first data from human nerve cells was added to the ‘Allen Cell Types Database’, a publically available survey of cell data. This will allow scientists from all around the world to study the human brain, rather than the brains of mice or rats that most scientists have had to study so far.
Last year also saw the launch of the International Brain Laboratory. This project brings together neuroscientists from across Europe and North America in a kind of ‘virtual laboratory’ to attempt to overcome some of the obstacles preventing us from a complete understanding of the brain’s functions - such as how the neural systems in our brain work with one another.
These projects show the very important role played by technology in modern neuroscience. In recent years, a growing number of scientists have used virtual reality (VR) environments to simulate real life experiences and further our understanding of the brain’s functions. For example, studies in the past have shown how exposure and interaction with nature improves cognitive performance.
However, in 2016 the first study comparing the effect of nature with a VR simulation demonstrated that the positive improvements in the brain shown after four days hiking in the countryside can be replicated with a VR session as short as 20 minutes. Virtual reality also has important applications within the area of occupational therapy. In stroke rehabilitation, for example, motion controlled VR games consoles such as the Xbox Kinect have been proposed as supplements to traditional physical therapy; multiple studies have shown the benefits it can have on upper limb function.
The growing field of stem cell research also promises much for the way in which we could treat neurological conditions in the future. Stem cells have the ability to develop into a variety of different, more specialised, cell types. They can divide without limit, restore other cells and act as a kind of regenerative system for the body. This gives them great potential to one day treat neurological conditions in an unimaginable way. A number of scientific trials on animals have shown the potential to treat certain diseases, for instance Alzheimer’s. Similar studies have been carried out for conditions such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis. Although a great deal of research still needs to be done to ensure the long-term safety of stem cell treatments, we are closer than ever to curing a number of conditions long thought to be incurable.
Whilst the number of people worldwide with a neurological condition is increasing, so too are the ways in which we may be able to treat them and the future of neurological research has never been more promising.