Hope and perseverance in our communities: Looking back on 2021

With each new year comes possibility and promise. The challenges we have faced in 2021 continue to test our grit and in some ways, our patience. My deepest sympathies go out to those of you who have experienced loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet despite these challenges, I have witnessed our research and scientific community endure and persevere. With this in mind, I am steadfast and certain that there is much to be hopeful for in 2022.

We are learning more about the effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection on the nervous system—in some cases, detrimental effects last far longer than the infection. NINDS is one of several Institutes, Centers, and Offices contributing to the NIH Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative. The RECOVER Initiative seeks to understand the scope of the problem and how SARS-CoV-2 can lead to long-lasting and widespread effects such as fatigue, decline in some cognitive abilities, pain, sleep disorders, and dysautonomia, among others. In September, NIH awarded nearly $470 million to build a national study population of diverse research volunteers and support large-scale studies on the long-term effects of COVID-19. I am proud of NINDS contributions to this collective effort.

NINDS meetings, conferences, and workshops have continued virtually in 2021. While these virtual venues are no replacement for the valued in-person interactions at scientific conferences, we have leveraged the ability of a virtual meeting to reach many more people than we normally would, including at this year’s NINDS Nonprofit Forum and 7th Annual BRAIN Initiative Meeting. These virtual gatherings have also been valuable in soliciting community input and collecting expert perspectives, such as through our Health Disparities and Inequities in Neurological Disorders Workshop (HEADWAY). The upcoming year will give us additional virtual gathering opportunities, including the Alzheimer's Disease-Related Dementias Virtual Summit. We must continue to plan for virtual meetings until we can gather safely in person, and I want to take a moment to recognize the active participation from the scientific community and the many NINDS staff who have worked tirelessly to ensure that virtual meetings function as seamlessly as possible.

This past year has also led to much personal reflection on the NINDS mission statement of generating knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disorders, for all people. I am encouraged that the events of 2020 have catalyzed numerous NIH efforts to improve workforce diversity, including the UNITE Initiative to identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and greater scientific community, the Plan for Enhancing Diverse Perspectives through the NIH BRAIN Initiative, and the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program, which aims to enhance and maintain cultures of inclusive excellence in the biomedical research community. NINDS has contributed effective and creative programs on workforce diversity for years; in addition, this year, we reported on factors that influence career choices among different populations of neuroscience trainees, and on understanding disparities in career equity. Ensuring a vibrant, talented, and diverse community of neuroscientists is also one of the cross-cutting strategies outlined in our 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan, which covers both the extramural, intramural and NIH workforce. 

As we continue with online meetings and collaboration spaces with an eye towards safe in-person gatherings in 2022, I am proud of NINDS contributions to trans-NIH Initiatives. These have included NINDS participation to better understand amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) through the Accelerating Leading-edge Science in ALS (ALS2) initiative, an effort to rapidly advance our understanding of what triggers ALS and what drives its rapid progression. In large part enabled by Congress’s funding of the National Action Plan for Alzheimer’s Disease, NINDS has led ambitious new research on Alzheimer's Disease and Alzheimer's Disease Related Dementias (AD/ADRD). In addition, in recognition of the urgent need to improve the management of pain, NINDS has also contributed to trans-NIH pain research efforts and opportunities including through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term® Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative®. Finally, NINDS also plays a critical role in the truly amazing NIH BRAIN Initiative, which published a series of landmark papers detailing the cell types, their connections and physiological properties in motor cortex of mouse, non-human primate and human.

In 2021, NINDS continued to support investigators who – even in the midst of a pandemic – persevered with numerous novel 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 January, I named Dr. Amy Bany Adams as Deputy Director for Scientific Management and Operations, a position established to accelerate the pace of neuroscience research by strengthening the partnerships between science and administration. In addition, in March, NIH announced Dr. Andrea Beckel-Mitchener as deputy director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. Alongside BRAIN Director Dr. John Ngai, she is working with NIH staff and scientists around the world, helping to oversee and coordinate research opportunities to develop new technologies for examining cell and circuit function in the brain.

Each year also brings transitions: after two years, Dr. Lorna Role stepped down in her role as NINDS Scientific Director to return to her lab as a full-time scientist. While this is a definite loss for NINDS, I am delighted that Lorna will remain a part of our scientific community, contributing to the understanding of mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders with a focus on cholinergic circuits. I also want to acknowledge NINDS Deputy Director Dr. Nina Schor who has graciously stepped in to serve as acting Scientific Director with incredible effectiveness. Finally, I am also grateful for the leadership, tenacity, and friendship of NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, who stepped down from his position after a 12-year tenure. Moving into 2022, we look forward to a new NINDS Scientific Director and NIH Director, whose visions and leadership will shepherd us towards an even more productive year.

With determination and hope, I am excited for all that NINDS and our community can bring to scientific progress in 2022, both in our ability to reduce the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and in our research priorities as we implement our new 2021-2026 NINDS Strategic Plan. To that end, we continue to await Congressionally-approved appropriations, and as of this writing, NIH is still operating under a Continuing Resolution, i.e., guided by legislative mandates that were in effect in Fiscal Year 2021, until a final budget for Fiscal Year 2022 is approved by Congress.

Through it all, we will continue our important mission: seeking fundamental knowledge about the nervous system and using that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease, for all people.

Was this page helpful?
Form Approved OMB# 0925-0648 Exp. Date 06/2024