Buddhists May Help Biotechies Solve Big Mental Health Woes, Says Merck Vet Ben Shapiro

8/3/09Follow @xconomy

One of the big opportunities in biotech over the coming decades may come from neuroscientists who team up with Buddhists. That might sound odd at first, but it’s no joke. This is one of the big ideas on the radar of Bennett Shapiro, the former executive vice president of worldwide basic research at Merck, who lives in Seattle, and serves as a senior partner with Boston’s PureTech Ventures.

Researchers are beginning to get a stronger sense of physiological differences in the brains of Buddhists who have been practicing mind training techniques like meditation for years, as compared to, say, the average brain of a distracted American, Shapiro says. These insights, based partly on brain imaging tools like functional MRI, are sparking new ideas about how to combine meditation techniques with neurological drugs, offering potential to do a better job of treating mental health problems, he says.

“If you want to think about the future in biotechnology, you would want to think about how you can help people regulate their emotions and attention,” Shapiro says. “If one can employ mind training in combination with pharmacologic therapies, one might be able to enhance their efficacy and thereby relieve the suffering of millions of people.”

Shapiro, 70, a longtime Seattleite who I met at a coffee shop near his house in the Magnolia neighborhood, sees these unusual connections between neuroscientists and Buddhists at close range. He serves on the board of the Boulder, CO-based nonprofit Mind & Life Institute, alongside the Dalai Lama himself and top neuroscientists like Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin. The Institute is trying to encourage research beyond the current drug regimens, like with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac, which Shapiro calls “blunt instruments” aimed at treating the most complex, differentiated organ in nature, the brain.

Even though the current drugs don’t work for everybody, and placebos often do remarkably well in clinical trials, these “blunt instruments” still add up to a lucrative market for drug companies. Pfizer alone generated $6 billion last year from neurology drugs, a 17 percent gain from the prior year, making this a faster-growing product category for that company than cardiovascular disease, pain, or cancer treatments. If drugs could be made that were more effective, presumably the market would get a lot bigger. About one out of every four adults in the U.S. suffer a diagnosable mental disorder each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

But what Shapiro is talking about could go a lot further than just diagnosable mental disorders. He’s thinking much more broadly about combinations of mind training and drugs that can help millions of children and adults. He says this sort of mind-training would be self-initiated and driven, not the coercive, frightening stuff from the movies like “A Clockwork Orange.”

If this is done the right way, Shapiro says, “Think about how people who meditate can control their emotions,” as well as their attention spans, Shapiro says. This could transform the educational system, … Next Page »

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