Q+A - Dr. Serge Gauthier

Dr. Serge Gauthier offers insight into funding for dementia research

Photo by Rodolphe Beaulieu.

Photo by Rodolphe Beaulieu.

As a professor and the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Research Unit at the McGill Centre for Studies on Aging in Montreal, Dr. Serge Gauthier has not only faced the challenges presented by the mysteries of dementia itself, but also the funding hurdles that researchers routinely encounter. Even if a researcher has a great idea for a project and volunteers willing to participate, public funding bodies do not have enough money to go around and private funding is not always available. From Gauthier’s perspective, a shortage of funding isn’t the only thing that’s preventing researchers from better treating and preventing dementia, but it is certainly a factor. 

Here, he reflects on the state of dementia research funding in Canada.

Q  |  How is research like yours typically funded in Canada?

A |  We apply for [both public and private] grants. Many researchers have been very successful thanks to agencies such as the Weston Brain Institute [Canada’s largest private funder of research on brain diseases linked to aging]. If it were only up to the federal body, the CIHR [Canadian Institutes of Health Research], we wouldn’t get sufficient funding.

You often need to go outside of the country — sometimes we have to apply for funds in the U.S. and Europe.

Here in Quebec, private-public partnerships have worked well, especially when private money has been matched by funding from the government.

Q  |  Do you feel like dementia research is properly funded in Canada?

A | The answer is a balance of yes and no. There has been sustained funding from the federal government and the provincial bodies. And, more importantly, for the past five years we’ve had a consortium in Canada called the CCNA or the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging. [It] has major funding from the CIHR [and is in] partnership with the Alzheimer Society of Canada and two or three smaller provincial funds. It’s just been re-funded for another five years. But the amount that was given [$50 million] is half of what is needed. That’s why my answer is yes and no. We have the funding, but it’s not enough. 

There was a Senate report in 2016 about funding for research on dementia and Canada. It should be in the order of $100 million per year, which is about one per cent of the cost of the disease. Right now, we’re about halfway there. 

Q  |  As our population continues to age, will there be increased public demand for a fully funded national dementia strategy?

A | In all the countries where the population is aging to be over 80, the need for increased funding is going to be a significant factor. The good news is that people who are baby boomers, age 65 to 75, are very keen on prevention and [will] volunteer for research. The bottleneck is, we don’t have enough staff. [For example], we don’t have enough scanners to scan the brains of the volunteers. So the funding would be for support staff, special equipment and researchers.

Q  |  In Canada, we’ve seen a lot of success with funds and awareness being raised for heart disease. Can we expect the same for dementia? 

A | People who [have] not died of a heart attack or a stroke [when they were] younger are now at risk for dementia, so yes. A lot of research is going to be translated into clinical practice quickly in Canada, perhaps faster than elsewhere.

A working group began creating a national dementia strategy two years ago. [It was released this past June.] It was created by an all-party bill that went through unanimously, so we can be confident that the national plan will be followed through by whoever wins the upcoming federal election. But we’ll have to remain vigilant. 

Q  |  Why is a well-funded national strategy so important?

A | Dementia will soon become the most expensive health condition. In some parts of the world, it’s estimated that it will cost the entire [amount] of [a country’s] current health-care budget. So, if we can reduce the numbers of people with dementia by 20 per cent within one generation, by delaying the onset of symptoms by five to 10 years, that will make a big difference. [ ]