A Trillion-Dollar Opportunity: How Brain Research Can Drive Health and Prosperity

Adams Nager July 11, 2016
July 11, 2016
Spurring biopharmaceutical innovation to understand and cure brain diseases and disorders could improve health outcomes for more than 50 million Americans while increasing GDP by up to $1.5 trillion or more.

More than 50 million American adults—21.8 percent of the country’s adult population—suffer each year from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s; psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression; or other brain disorders such as autism. Notwithstanding the very real and significant human costs from these conditions, brain diseases also impose massive costs on the economy. This includes not just treatment for mental health and related physical illnesses, but also reduced worker output, and spending on criminal justice and related social services. 

Taking all of this into account, ITIF estimates the potential economic opportunity associated with curing brain diseases and disorders to be more than $1.5 trillion per year—or 8.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). This estimate is not truly comprehensive—nor can it quantify the very significant human costs to individuals, families, and communities—but it underscores the scale of the potential benefit that would come from increasing research and developing new innovations to diagnose, treat, and cure brain diseases and disorders.

By preventing many early deaths, allowing disabled people to rejoin the workforce, and improving productivity among millions of workers who currently suffer from some form of mental illness, mental health innovation can help increase output by substantially increasing the number of hours worked in the United States. Moreover, governments (at both the federal and state levels) would save billions on services and incarceration costs for individuals with mental illness, and crime would likely decrease, thus reducing the need for spending on the criminal justice system. Both individuals and the Medicare program would save billions. Fewer people would die of diseases linked to tobacco (people with mental illnesses smoke almost one-third of all cigarettes in the United States), from myriad physical ailments including cancer and heart disease, and from drug and alcohol abuse. 

As such, public policies that support biopharma innovation related to mental and neurological conditions should be viewed not only as vital health policies, but also important economic policies. If the United States could make more progress on biopharma innovation to diagnose, treat, cure and even prevent mental illnesses, the economic gains would not only vastly outweigh the costs of research but also spur substantial growth. Accordingly, policies that increase federal funding for research into brain diseases and enable bio-pharmaceutical companies to invest more in mental health-related R&D need to be seen as a key component of a national economic growth strategy.

Unfortunately, medical researchers lack fundamental knowledge about what causes brain conditions, how they affect people’s brains, and how to cure or even effectively treat them. The human brain is a vast frontier that has just begun to be explored. Such exploration is key to unlocking a new generation of treatments and restarting stalled innovation on mental and neurological illnesses. As discoveries advance through research on specific mental disorders, on brain functions, and on the chemical and biological compounds that can treat disorders, treatments will likely be introduced that improve diagnosis and treatment.

This report first examines the costs of diseases and disorders that disrupt and impair brain function, such as autism, neurodegenerative diseases, and psychiatric disorders. Next it discusses the potential of biopharmaceutical innovation for treating and preventing these conditions. Finally, the report discusses broad policy directions for moving forward. This entails three main thrusts:

  • First, Congress needs to expand federal funding for brain- and mental health-related research. Indeed, the federal government has a crucial role to play in funding this early-stage research.
  • Second, in the debate over drug prices, policymakers need to remember that price controls come at the cost of reduced research, including in brain and mental health research.
  • Third, policy should seek to encourage private investment in mental-health innovation, in part by making the U.S. tax code more supportive of enterprise investment in scientific research, such as by expanding R&D tax credits, introducing an “innovation box” that would apply lower tax rates to profits earned on products developed using new intellectual property, and allowing foreign profits to be repatriated at a lower corporate tax rate if the monies are invested in research on mental and neurological health conditions.


A Trillion-Dollar Opportunity: How Brain Research Can Drive Health and Prosperity