NINDS: Looking back on 2019

NINDS: Looking back on 2019

The end of a decade – and the start of a new one – brings a certain state of reflection that can differ from the usual year-to-year perspective. As I look back on the last decade, and particularly in the last year, I am heartened and encouraged by the significant strides that NINDS has made and continues to make through funding awards, facilitating collaborations, launching new initiatives, and transitioning leadership roles. With gratitude, we thank our investigators, research subjects, and our partners representing those suffering from neurological disorders and stroke.

In 2019, NINDS launched its next strategic planning effort, led by NINDS Deputy Director Dr. Nina Schor, which will help to set overarching goals for the institute to achieve in the next 5-10 years. For this effort, we aim to tune our practices and policies to our vision and mission, in order to better serve and anticipate the needs of the research and patient communities and the public. We want to dream big! As a first step for this process, we conducted an initial request for information (RFI) to inform the roadmap by which internal NINDS taskforces will collaborate with both internal and external stakeholders. While the RFI submission deadline has passed, we continue to monitor submissions and want to hear from you! Please also continue to follow along as we post new opportunities for engagement during the strategic planning process.

One of the biggest 2019 accomplishments was the announcement of the awards for the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative, investing $945M in research across approximately 375 awards in 41 states. The HEAL Initiative presents an unprecedented opportunity to advance the field of pain research and reduce reliance on opioid medications. As the lead institute for pain research at NIH, NINDS helped to develop the pain management pillars of the Initiative and will serve as the hub for several programs to accelerate the development of new therapies. One notable program is the Early Phase Pain Investigation Clinical Network (EPPIC-Net) which provides the infrastructure and clinical population for early stage clinical trials to test non-addictive pain therapies. Applications for trials to be conducted in EPPIC-Net are open and evaluated on a rolling basis. As NIH staff have worked tirelessly to ensure the quick launch of these awards, I thank them and am eager to follow the progress of these programs to improve pain management and outcomes through research.

At its halfway point, the BRAIN Initiative is revolutionizing neuroscience research. Since 2014, NIH has invested over $1.3 billion in the BRAIN Initiative, supporting over 700 awards to hundreds of investigators. These awards leverage broad scientific disciplines and both investigator- and team-based science towards addressing fundamental questions in neural circuit function, and to date, hundreds of publications have generated new tools and neurotechnologies that better help us see the brain in action. Numerous events, including most recently at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, highlighted the game-changing nature of these tools and resources, as they begin to be distributed to the wider basic neuroscience community and impact clinical research.

As the NIH BRAIN Initiative moves toward its second half, I am thrilled it is doing so under the leadership of Dr. John Ngai, recently appointed as NIH BRAIN Initiative Director, who will join the NIH team in March. Dr. Ngai is currently the Coates Family Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, and has built a long-standing research program on how the nervous system detects odors and turns them into neural signals sent to the brain. He will oversee both day-to-day operations and BRAIN’s long-term strategy, which is informed by two recently accepted reports on the progress and emerging opportunities in neuroscience, led by Drs. Catherine Dulac and John Maunsell, and neuroethics, led by Drs. Jim Eberwine and Jeff Kahn, for the Initiative. I thank both working groups for their diligent efforts in this strategic planning process over the last year and a half, and with their discussions and under the helm of Dr. Ngai, I am excited for what scientific advances from BRAIN are just around the corner.

Another notable 2019 accomplishment is the launch of the Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) Parkinson’s Disease (PD) Knowledge Portal. This platform will enable new PD biomarkers to come to fruition by enabling access to harmonized longitudinal clinical and -omics data from over 4000 participants, including both individuals with PD and healthy controls. We also continue our robust collaboration with the National Institute on Aging to fund research in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Alzheimer’s disease-related dementias (ADRD). In March, NINDS hosted the triennial ADRD Summit to review and update priorities and timelines for addressing the ADRDs—including frontotemporal (FTD), Lewy body (LBD), mixed, and vascular dementias. Those updates will guide NIH investments in ADRD research, and we are grateful to the many stakeholders who have participated in the planning process.

Conducting the best science goes hand in hand with empowering the next generation of scientists, and so I am thrilled that NINDS recognizes outstanding mentors through the Landis Award for Outstanding Mentorship. In making the second year of awards this past summer, we want the community to know just how important mentorship is for sustaining the scientific research enterprise. To achieve our research and scientific goals, both at NINDS and at NIH as a whole, it truly is imperative that we value the efforts of outstanding mentors and lift up a diverse range of individuals to position them for success. Toward that end, I made a commitment earlier this year along with Francis Collins to only give presentations at conferences where diversity and inclusion are actively considered in panels or other prominent speaking slots, as diversity is not only important for representation, but also for making the science better.

As a step in making that science better, I also want to emphasize the utmost importance in maintaining healthy workplace climates, both here at NINDS and in the research environments that we support. Here at NINDS and at NIH, we are coming to grips with cultures and environments that have permitted unacceptable behavior for too long. To do better, we are taking action. Dr. Collins created a Working Group of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director on Changing the Culture of Sexual Harassment, and NINDS is organizing a series of town halls early in 2020 that will be mandatory for all staff. There is no easy answer to addressing this issue, but it is critical that we work together to foster a culture of respect for all.

In 2019, NINDS supported innovative scientific advances in neuroscience and neurology. While I cannot highlight all of them here, I have selected a few favorites that you can view above. The past also brought us opportunities to explore and build new research programs, collaborations, and partnerships. All of our efforts at NINDS move forward (in no small part), thanks to our leadership team. In February, Dr. Lorna Role joined NINDS as Scientific Director, bringing her pioneering research and broad leadership experience to direct the intramural program (IRP), which includes 48 labs and 1000+ staff. Dr. Role has studied the brain’s cholinergic system over the lifespan, been the principal investigator on numerous NIH-funded grands, and earned numerous awards and honors including the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award. Under the guidance of strong NINDS leaders, we are poised for even more progress in 2020. In this new decade, which begins with a 7.8% increase in Congressionally appropriated funding over last year, we continue our important mission: seeking fundamental knowledge about the nervous system and using that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.

Friday, January 31, 2020