Previously, I wondered why there was no hue-and-cry over the huge disinvestment in
brain research over the past decade, and why, by comparison, cancer research does well.* ‘Cancer‘ is understood by the public at large, by the political establishment, by the pharmaceutical companies and a host of other stakeholders as a single-word issue of great and pressing concern to all members of society. There is no such counterpart word available for the diseases of the brain. “Neurodegenerative disorders” doesn’t work – it has too many syllables, and misses too many of the other brain disorders that are not neurodegenerative in nature (such as attention deficit disorders or addictions). “Dementia” doesn’t work either. This word refers to a constellation of differing conditions, most of which arise as a result of aging (some of which have to do with memory, judgment, attention and perception; others to do with behavioural self-regulation) but with little overlap with a variety of other conditions. There are other well-known but very specific words. Schizophrenia has a very particular meaning, applying to circa 1% of the population. Addiction doesn’t work either, even though it afflicts perhaps 10-20% of the population of the developed world (depending on who you ask). Depression is an extremely common condition many are familiar with, perhaps through life experience or feelings of melancholia, but again, it doesn’t capture, in a single word, problems relating to brain function and dysfunction. A new word may therefore be required.
In information and computational sciences, the phrase “malware” is used to indicate functional or structural problems with a given information technology device. These can arise for all sorts of reasons – principally malicious software problems (think computer viruses, etc). Here, I suggest that we adopt the phrase “malbrain”** as a banner term to brand research into all brain disorders – whether of structure or function or both , in much the same way that cancer has been used to brand a wide variety of proliferative and semi-proliferative conditions affecting a diverse range of tissues within the human body. Malbrain can be defined as any disorder, dysfunction, structural problem or pathophysiological problem afflicting the brain, which has consequences which impair the normal neurological, psychological and psychiatric functioning of an individual (howsoever defined). I am sure further caveats are required. Neologisms are often not welcome, but this neologism might do the trick for neuroscience that the word ‘cancer’ did for fundamental and applied research in cell biology, applied to a difficult patient condition. Malbrain has advantages as a word. It hasn’t been widely used before: a Google n-gram search gets you this: ‘Ngrams not found: malbrain’, which renders malbrain a usefully unused word.
It is short, doesn’t consist of many syllables, and doesn’t come with judgmental or other issues relating to the stigmatizing of disorders (who wants to admit they suffer from a psychiatric disease?). Suffering from ‘malbrain’ might just do the trick to innervate neuroscience in the public sphere – just like “cancer” did all those decades ago.
*I am NOT arguing against research funding for cancer – this disease presents a clear and obvious need for substantial research funding. Arguably, current levels of funding for cancer research are inadequate. RATHER, I am arguing that funding for brain diseases and disorders (malbrain) is substantially inadequate and needs huge increases in funding.
**There is a related concept: riskware (problematic code that can be exploited by malware). Maybe ‘riskbrain‘ is another alternative?
***I changed ‘compete’ to ‘complement’ in the title to better reflect the contents of the post.