NINDS: Looking Back on 2018

NINDS: Looking Back on 2018

As we begin the new year, and on behalf of everyone at NINDS, I would like to thank our investigators, research subjects, and our partners representing those suffering from neurological disorders for helping us make 2018 a success. The past year brought more excellent research advances in neuroscience and neurology than I can highlight here, but you will find some of my favorites from NINDS displayed above. NINDS also began and expanded several critical research programs and collaborations, and we welcomed valuable new additions to our leadership team.

In 2018, NIH launched the HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative, an aggressive, trans-agency effort to speed scientific solutions to stem the national opioid public health crisis. The HEAL Initiative is a unique opportunity to advance pain science: with 25 million people experiencing daily chronic pain in the U.S., we must support research to advance understanding of pain conditions and develop better treatments for those suffering. NINDS and NIDA co-lead the HEAL Initiative at NIH, but as a reflection of the broad reach of pain research, many Institutes and Centers are critically involved through the NIH Pain Consortium. The cornerstone of HEAL’s efforts to develop effective, non-addictive pain treatments is a clinical trials network to accelerate early trials of new drugs and devices. Other coordinated efforts will aim to translate discoveries into effective devices for pain treatment, and to partner with other Institutes and Centers through cross-cutting pain programs. After announcing the HEAL Research Plan in June, NIH issued over 30 Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) for FY2019 just last month. These FOAs focus on addressing the multi-pronged challenges of opioid addiction, acute pain, and numerous chronic pain conditions, and are a call to action for the entire biomedical research community.

Now in its fifth year, the BRAIN Initiative® continues to transform fundamental neuroscience research. Through FY2018, NIH has funded over 500 investigators with a cumulative total investment of nearly $1 billion. These awards support cross-disciplinary, team-based science and cutting-edge technology development to investigate neural circuit function, as well as neuroethics research. To date, hundreds of publications have described new BRAIN-related advances and techniques for studying the brain in action. Please visit the BRAIN Initiative Alliance website for a review of notable advances reported in 2018 supported by NIH and other BRAIN partners. Given the rapid progress of the Initiative, the evolving neuroscience landscape, and the surge of funding promised through the 21st Century Cures Act, we recruited a new Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) BRAIN Working Group “2.0” to provide scientific guidance on how best to accomplish the ambitious vision for BRAIN over the second half of the Initiative. This external group, led by Drs. Catherine Dulac and John Maunsell, held a series of cross-country workshops over the summer and fall to hear from scientific experts and to solicit input from the neuroscience community. After delivering their interim update to the ACD last month, they will release a draft report to the public in early spring, with a final report anticipated in June 2019.

Underscoring the importance of considering the ethical, legal, and societal implications of neuroscience research, the ACD BRAIN Neuroethics Subgroup (BNS) has been tasked with developing a Neuroethics Roadmap for the NIH BRAIN Initiative. The BNS, led by Drs. Jim Eberwine and Jeff Kahn, will incorporate updates from the ACD BRAIN 2.0 Working Group, characterizing the neuroethical implications that may arise as BRAIN investments produce and apply new tools and neurotechnologies. Two commentaries on neuroethics for the NIH BRAIN Initiative were recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience: a set of eight guiding principles for ethical considerations in neuroscience research, and an accompanying commentary on neuroethics strategy and operationalization from NIH Institute Directors involved in BRAIN.

This year also saw the launch of a Working Group of the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NANDS) Council, focused on how best to advance research on myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), which affects up to 2.5 million individuals in the U.S. Led by Dr. Steve Roberds, a member of the NANDS Council, the Working Group is composed of scientists, clinicians, representatives from advocacy organizations and individuals with ME/CFS. The group is charged with identifying gaps and opportunities in ME/CFS research, considering how NIH-supported ME/CFS research can empower young investigators, and identify ways to enhance communication and collaboration among ME/CFS stakeholders. The group will report to NANDS Council in September 2019.

Separately, in an effort to permit NINDS to fund a larger, more diverse pool of researchers, and to ensure that investigators have the bandwidth to oversee rigorously-conducted research and serve as good mentors to their trainees, we implemented modifications to the NIH Special Council Review (SCR) policy. Researchers with NIH funding exceeding $1M in direct costs are subject to a percentile payline that is half of the NINDS payline. Effective now (with some exceptions), the policy will be reviewed at the February 2019 meeting of the NANDS Council.

In 2018, we were also excited to support a new set of scientists with the NINDS Research Program Award (RPA). Unlike R01 awards, which provide support for up to five years for a specific set of experiments, the RPA uses the R35 mechanisms to fund an investigator’s laboratory for up to eight years, enabling the pursuit of ambitious, long-range, innovative research. I wrote previously about our hope of encouraging diverse applicants, and I invite you to read about the new cohort of R35 recipients here.  We look forward to supporting another group of outstanding investigators through this program in FY2019, pending approval by the NANDS Council at its next meeting in February.

At the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in November, a satellite event celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Ben Barres, an exemplary neuroscience researcher, dedicated mentor, and fierce advocate for women and underrepresented groups in the neuroscience community. During this event, NINDS recognized the six inaugural winners of the NINDS Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship. The award recognizes the contributions and importance that NINDS places on outstanding mentors, and is named after former NINDS Director Dr. Story Landis. The Landis Award, granted annually, provides up to five researchers with $100,000, to support their efforts in advancing the careers of students and postdoctoral fellows in their laboratories. The first group of grantees are junior faculty members, who began tenure-track positions within the past 5-12 years. For 2019, NINDS recently accepted nominations for outstanding mid-career research mentors, 13 - 20 years from the start of their first tenure-track or equivalent faculty position. These awards will be announced in the summer of 2019.

To guide us in these new and expanded efforts, we had welcome additions to our leadership team this year as well. Dr. Nina Schor is sharing valuable experience and scientific expertise as she settles in to her role as Deputy Director.  And, in October, we welcomed Dr. Lyn Jakeman to a new role as Director, Division of Neuroscience, where she will be responsible for planning and directing a program of extramural and collaborative research in neuroscience, as well as coordinate activities across other NINDS divisions. Finally, after 12 years as NINDS Scientific Director, Dr. Alan Koretsky “stepped up” from his position to resume full-time duty as an NINDS intramural investigator. Moving into 2019, we look forward to appointing a new Scientific Director and NIH BRAIN Initiative Director to the NINDS team. With these new leaders in place, we look anticipate an even more productive 2019, as we continue our mission of seeking fundamental knowledge about the nervous system and using that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.

Monday, January 28, 2019