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Scientists aim to demystify workings of the brain

International Brain Week highlights the grey matter (picture: CHUV)

If you don't know your cerebellum from your hypothalamus, this is the week to find out, as universities and hospitals throughout Switzerland take part in Brain Awareness Week.

"We want to promote a better knowledge of neuroscience. We have to get the wider public involved," says Beatrice Roth, head of the Swiss branch of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, the driving force behind the week.

Hundreds of events are being held throughout the world as part of this sixth International Brain Awareness Week. In Switzerland, where the week is taking place for the fourth year running, activities are scheduled in Aarau, Basel, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Lausanne, Sierre and Zurich, and in canton Ticino.

Many of the events are concentrated in Geneva and Lausanne. The region is the third most highly-rated area for the study of neuroscience in Europe, after the British cities of Oxford and Cambridge.

"It's part of our mission to encourage more contact between universities, hospitals and the public," says Ann Kato of Geneva University's Neuromuscular research division, one of the organisers of the week.

"It's a very complicated, specialised area, and many scientists have difficulty making their findings accessible to the general public," she told swissinfo.

The brain, a 1.5 kilogramme mass of interwoven nerve cells, determines who we are by governing our emotions, intelligence, creativity and actions. It is more complex and versatile than any computer, and scientists are still trying to unravel its mysteries.

The brain holds the answers to many of today's least understood disorders, including stroke, Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, depression, stress, eating disorders, schizophrenia and autism.

Virtually everyone knows someone who is affected by one of these disorders, and Brain Awareness Week is aimed at raising awareness about these problems and helping to remove the stigmas associated with them.

"The best way to remove a stigma is to talk about it," Kato says.

Research is showing that many of these diseases and ailments may have a genetic cause. Showing that a person is genetically predisposed to schizophrenia, Alzheimer's or even bed-wetting may help to remove the shame attached to many of these brain-related disorders.

Genetics is likely to a major theme of the week. The biggest scientific breakthrough since the last Brain Awareness Week - and indeed for a good number of years - has been the sequencing of the human genome.

"We're expecting huge progress in the future as we discover which genes are responsible for these neuro-degenerative diseases," Ann Kato says.

"It will not only improve our understanding, it will also help us to set therapeutic targets. Once we understand the mechanisms of these diseases, we can find new drugs to treat them.".

The events in Geneva explore a wide range of fields associated with the brain, including how this vital organ appreciates art, the therapeutic advances in treating Parkinson's disease, how our memory works and the regenerative role of sleep.

One of the experts who will be talking about this last subject is Mehdi Tafti of the Belle-Idée Hospital in Geneva: "Sleep disorders are a major health problem, but they are not well recognised, even in the medical community. We don't even know the real function of sleep."

"Almost 50 per cent of the population suffers from sleep disorders, but only one per cent seeks advice from a sleep specialist. We need to raise awareness of the problem," Tafti told swissinfo.

The week is not all round-tables and seminars. Geneva's University medical department is staging an exhibition of art by brain-injured people. Allowing them to exercise their creative skills is considered one of the most effective ways for them to rebuild their identity.

by Roy Probert


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