The tenacity and resilience of our community: Meeting the Challenges of 2020

Like many of you, I am looking forward to 2021 as a new year of possibility. As a country, we have faced challenges in 2020 that have been unlike anything we have ever experienced in decades. My heart goes out to all those who have experienced loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to learn more about the effects of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 on the nervous system every day. Yet, when I look back on the year, I am struck – perhaps more so than anything else – by the dedication of our tenacious and resilient research community to meet those challenges and continue to create research progress.

The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic forced us at NIH to make quick decisions to support our applicants and grantees. Many Institutes and Centers, including NINDS, issued supplement opportunities to support researchers studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus in relation to their existing awards. We also issued administrative flexibilities and extensions of eligibility to accommodate individuals who are juggling additional demands during the pandemic. One of these supplement opportunities resulted in the establishment of a COVID-19 NeuroDatabank and NeuroBioBank at NYU Langone Health. As this database and biospecimen bank comes online, it will serve as a national resource to document and study the neurological complications of COVID-19. Interested researchers will be able to submit requests for the use of data and biosamples to NYU and we hope to understand better the neurologic complications and changes in neurological status caused by COVID-19. Further, we have been working with our colleagues across NIH to study post-acute COVID syndrome. We plan to incorporate research questions on the long-term effects of COVID into ongoing studies and are working on plans to establish additional prospective research plans. I personally learned a lot from the NIAID/NIH Workshop on Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19 (videocast day 1 and day 2) that incorporated researcher, clinician, and patient viewpoints. The NINDS Clinical Director, Dr. Avi Nath, is a leader in this field and the NINDS Intramural Program has made advances  in understanding the effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the brain. Interestingly, Dr. Nath's team recent report in NEJM shows multifocal breakdown of the blood brain barrier, small infarcts, microhemorrhages, inflammatory infiltrates, and microglial nodules, despite no definitive sign of the virus in the brain. We are working quickly to learn more. 

Many of NINDS’ scientific conferences and workshops pivoted quickly to virtual venues. While these virtual venues are no replacement for the valued in-person interactions at scientific conferences, we learned quickly that one benefit of virtual meetings is the ability to reach many more people than we normally would. NINDS events, including the 2020 Virtual Nonprofit Forum and the Virtual BRAIN Investigators Meeting, found ways to bring together community stakeholders to connect online, learn from one another, and provide networking opportunities from the comfort of home. NINDS also contributed to the NIH Virtual Seminar on Program Funding and Grants Administration, for which over 20,000 people registered to attend. As we continue to plan these virtual meetings until we can gather safely in person, I want to take a moment to recognize the active participation from the scientific community and the many NINDS staff who worked tirelessly to make the shift from in-person to virtual meetings as seamless as possible.

Events in the past year have also caused me to reflect on the NINDS mission statement of generating knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disorders, for all people. As I wrote earlier this year, we are living in a moment that can – and must – catalyze positive change as we recognize our own behaviors and attitudes, affirm our commitment to diversity, and eliminate racial bias in our community as well as in our organization. We cannot allow this pivotal moment to pass. NIH is committed to diversity, and a recent presentation at the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director demonstrated our shared commitment to making changes. I want to encourage the neuroscience community to strongly consider the funding opportunities being made available through the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Program that aims to enhance and maintain cultures of inclusive excellence and promote diversity in the research community. Here at NINDS, we are prioritizing equity and inclusion as we update our strategic plan, and as we move forward, I continue to be committed in holding myself and our Institute accountable.

As we continue a shift to online meetings and collaboration spaces, I am proud of NINDS contributions to trans-NIH Initiatives. Along with our colleagues in the NIH Pain Consortium, we recently released a renewed Centers of Excellent in Pain Education (CoEPEs) website, providing an online resource for the development, education, and distribution of pain management curricula materials. NINDS is also leading the Early Phase Pain Investigation Clinical Network (EPPIC-Net) through the NIH Helping End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. This effort seeks to enhance the treatment of acute and chronic pain and reduce reliance on opioids by accelerating early-phase clinical trials of non-addictive treatments for pain. The first trial in EPPIC-Net will be launched in early 2021, and I am looking forward to more trials launching throughout the year. The COVID-19 pandemic is linked to a record number of deaths from drug overdoses, primarily driven by synthetic opioids, and we are hopeful that EPPIC-Net trials will be able to lay the groundwork for pain treatments that are not reliant on opioids.

In 2020, NINDS continued to support investigators who – even in the midst of a pandemic – led innovative scientific advances in neuroscience and neurology. While I cannot highlight all of them here, I have selected a few that you can view above. This year 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 May, Dr. John Ngai, formerly the Coates Family Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, joined us as Director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. In this role, he oversees the long-term strategy and day-to-day operations of the Initiative as it takes on the challenges of the next five-year plan. Dr. Ngai has hit the ground running, and the BRAIN Initiative continues to innovate as we accelerate the launch of large-scale transformative projects that will propel neuroscience far into the future. We anticipate that the next phase of BRAIN will take the advances the scientific community has made and move it to a greater number of researchers and into the clinic.

NINDS and the scientific community are poised for more progress in 2021, both in our ability to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and in our research priorities. The year will begin with a 2.81% increase in the NINDS appropriated budget, and we 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.