The modern drug business was built on brain medicines: Valium was the first blockbuster, selling 2 billion tablets in 1978, and Prozac defined the industry in the 1990s. But stagnant science since then led many big drug companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol-Myers Squibb and AstraZeneca, to flee neuroscience, even as an aging population promises a dramatic surge in brain disease. In the past five years the number of drugs being developed by large drugmakers for brain and nervous system disorders fell 50% to 129, according to NeuroPerspective, an industry newsletter.
But now, thanks to scientific advances such as genetic sequencing and new DNA editing technologies, the industry is in the midst of a dramatic reversal. Last year investors poured $3.3 billion into firms that are developing drugs for brain-destroying or psychiatric illnesses, more than in any of the last ten years, says NeuroPerspective. Some big drug companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Roche and Novartis, are finding ways to reinvigorate their efforts. New medicines for severe depression, psychosis and schizophrenia could reach the market within the next few years, and treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and some forms of autism are a real possibility, too.