A UN report projects the fastest growth in the number of older persons in Africa aged 60 and above will increase more than threefold, from 69 million to 226 million between 2017 and 2050, which will increase the incidence of neurological conditions associated with ageing, yet governments across the continent continue to prioritize research on infectious diseases over other health areas. A recent studyin Nature Communications, noted that while neuroscience research is being conducted across Africa, only five countries (Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia) account for more than three out of four neuroscience papers published from the continent.
In more than half of African countries, the study showed that fewer than ten neuroscience papers have been published since 1996. Even though the situation is now improving with the number of neuroscience publications from Africa at an all-time high, a number of fundamental bottlenecks exist that may continue to limit the continent’s contributions to the global neuroscience research landscape.
The lead author of the paper, Mahmoud Bukar Maina, is a Nigerian neuroscientist and researcher. In an interview with Nature Africa, Maina discussed the state of neuroscience research, and science in general, in Africa. A research fellow at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, Maina said neuroscience research is largely driven by local priorities and in Africa, it is limited by the existing gaps between basic and clinical neuroscience researchers.
“Neuroscience outside Africa is multi-directional. There is a neuroscience related to disease, another is related to understanding how the brain works and trying to use that understanding to produce machines or technologies that will aid human health,” he said. The current structure of neuroscience in Africa has made it difficult for findings to result in any globally relevant breakthroughs, even though there are neuroscientists spread across the continent, according to Maina. He described a lack of awareness regarding developments and trends in neuroscience as a major limitation to the continent’s contributions.
Driving attention to neuroscience in Africa
Maina, explains that knowing Africa’s neuroscience capacity is a crucial benchmark to enable proper structuring on the continent. However, searching databases for Africa-focused neuroscience research publications by using keywords could be misleading. Maina explains that several studies that focused on Africa were performed by scientists from foreign institutions that only collected samples from the continent that were then processed and analyzed in sophisticated labs outside Africa.
Maina observed that the continent is a major contributor to the global knowledge of several infectious diseases including COVID-19, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and several others. “Infectious diseases are very obvious. People think about them as very relevant. But, they don’t seem to see the relevance of neuroscience. Because of this, the labs doing neuro research in Africa are not getting as much attention and funding as the labs doing infectious disease or malaria research,” he told Nature Africa. He described this as an issue of awareness considering a number of neuro-degenerative diseases are increasingly becoming a significant burden on Africa’s health sector. On the connections between infectious diseases and neurological disorders with conditions such as cerebral meningitis and HIV-linked dementia, “Alzheimer’s disease and all other forms of dementia are on the rise in Africa. Also, the neurological disease burden in Africa is significantly high compared to many countries that are doing better,” he added.
To Maina, neuroscience within Africa has many strengths and weaknesses. Some of the strength is that there is a rising population of neuroscientists. But there is also a lack of infrastructure, under-utilization of good model systems and paucity of research funds.
This understanding should help societies in different countries to argue for more supports towards neuroscience research in their country. Funders can now see which of the major areas they need to focus on, he said.
Not just Neuroscience
The Society of Neuroscientists of Africa was registered in 1993 and according to its membership directory, the society has 49 regular members from across the continent.
But neuroscience is not the only aspect of science that requires urgent attention.
Maina said the continent is also in need of experts in other fields of science including infectious diseases that African governments to prioritize. “There are more in those areas but they are still not sufficient.” he told Nature Africa.
“Neuroscience research is multidisciplinary, involving other scientists including biochemists, psychologists, anatomists, clinicians, and others. By that standard, lack of lab infrastructure is not specific to one discipline; it tells us that the majority of bio-scientists in Africa don’t have the required infrastructure. The issue of funding also applies to them too,” he concluded.
Maina MB et al Nat Commun 12, 3429 (2021)