NICHE FIELD OF NEUROTECHNOLOGY HOLDS OUT GREAT PROMISE, BUT FIRMS SEEKING TO DEVELOP TREATMENTS TAKE BIG RISKS


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The prospect of a billion people nearing the age when they risk brain-related illnesses like Alzheimer's disease or chronic pain is helping fuel a costly scramble by biotechnology firms to find solutions.

The Bay Area has more than 30 companies, out of about 300 worldwide, developing brain-related products for everything from sleep and anxiety disorders to multiple sclerosis and stroke. Much of the focus of ``the brain industry,'' as it is dubbed, is on finding treatments for ailments likely to hit aging baby boomers.

``The demand for better cognitive therapeutics is exploding,'' concluded a study of the brain industry made public this month by NeuroInsights, a San Francisco research firm. ``One quarter of the population will be at high risk for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease by 2025.''

The report estimated the worldwide revenue for this neurotechnology niche at $100 billion last year, a 13 percent increase from 2003, with the lion's share of that produced by a few established drug companies. As potentially lucrative as the brain business is, however, it's extremely risky, even for the notoriously precarious biotechnology industry.

``There's an incredible market for this stuff, but it's a tough field,'' said Samuel Barondes, director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco.

Most of the niche's newcomers don't have products on the market yet and may not make a profit for years.



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