NINDS and Behavioral Science

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) supports research relevant to disorders of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. Our Institute is responsible for research support for more than 600 neurological disorders, which are estimated to strike more than 50 million Americans each year.

Among the major diseases that we study are stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, brain and spinal cord injury, brain tumors, and developmental disorders of the nervous system. We support research through our extramural grant program, through our intramural research program, and through the training of young investigators.

I appreciate the invitation from the APS Observer to present the activities of our Institute to the behavioral science community. We view behavioral science as a key component of the broad effort of neuroscientists to understand how the brain works.

Progress

We are in the midst of an especially exciting time in research on the brain, in which progress in understanding how the brain works has been rapid, almost breathtaking. Although there is still much that we do not know, we have powerful tools at our disposal.

At the most complex levels of organization of the brain, we have new imaging techniques that allow us to examine the functioning mammalian brain in a non-invasive way, and new computational techniques by which we can follow, analyze, and predict the activity of large populations of neurons.

At the least complex level of organization, advances in molecular genetics have opened the field of inherited diseases to new exploration. Over one-third of all genetic diseases are estimated to affect the brain, and we have now identified altered genes in more than 50 of these diseases. During just the last year, for example, genes for three rare childhood diseases (Batten disease, Friedreich’ s ataxia, and ataxia-telangiectasia) have been identified, as well as two new genes responsible for familial Alzheimer’s disease and the first gene for an inherited form of epilepsy called progressive myoclonic epilepsy. In each case, the identification of the gene gives us new ideas and new tools for research.

One exciting consequence of the new advances in technology is that behavior and biology are being brought closer together. Because our methods of biological analysis are increasingly able to deal with complex biological systems, we can now make correlations between behavioral and biological changes with a sophistication that was only imagined a few years ago. Imagine being able to see the parts of the brain that become activated as one thinks of nouns or verbs, or to trace the neurophysiological circuits that underlie a young bird learning to sing.

On the other side, we are also learning that discrete molecular defects can have such subtle effects on behavior that sophisticated methods of behavioral analysis are required to tease them out. In fac. one of the major challenges for neuroscience is to tie together our understanding at various levels of organization. The idea that we can now make a defined genetic alteration in a mouse and examine the consequences of that alteration in terms of function at the molecular, cellular, systems, and behavioral levels is truly exciting. Because studies of biology and behavior have often evolved along separate pathways and belonged to separate traditions, special effort must be made to train future researchers who will be expert in both fields.

The advances in basic neuroscience hold tremendous promise for the treatment of neurological disease. With a few exceptions, such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, neurology has had few treatments to offer those suffering from neurological disorders. That bleak prospect is rapidly changing. Within the last few years, the first effective treatments for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis have been approved, and this year NINDS scientists announced the results of a large-scale, multi-center trial showing that treatment of stroke with a clot-buster within three hours of the first symptoms dramatically improved the chances of complete recovery. We expect that with future advances, more and more drugs will be available for the treatment of neurological disease.

Priorities

As a new Director, I have set several priorities for the next few years. The first goal is to revitalize our intramural research program. The NINDS intramural research must take advantage of the talent and the resources within the NIH and constantly strive to set the pace for developing new knowledge about the brain and applying that knowledge to disease. Under the direction of our new Scientific Director, Story Landis, we are beginning to recruit young scientists to NINDS. For those who wish to do full -time research, NINDS is indeed an attractive place, as research support is guaranteed, administrative and teaching responsibilities are few, and NIH offers a rich research environment for basic and clinical science.

A second goal is to improve the quality of NINDS support of the extramural research community through our grants and training programs. We are currently reviewing both the organization and policies of our extramural programs to determine how we can best serve our grantees. We are particularly concerned with the training and development of young scientists because the future of our field will depend on their quality. One of our priorities is to improve training at the interface of basic and clinical science. In January 1996 we invited a group of neuroscientists concerned with basic and clinical training to a workshop, chaired by John Hildebrand of the University of Arizona and Don Price of Johns Hopkins University, to evaluate our training policies and to make suggestions for the future.

A third goal is to work cooperatively with other Institutes in support of brain research. Many NIH Institutes now have a substantial research program related to neuroscience and diseases of the brain. NINDS is actively working with these Institutes to make our policies and programs fit together better, and to promote brain research. As part of Brain Awareness Week, May 12-18, for example, NINDS, along with ten other NIH Institutes is sponsoring a symposium at NIH, titled “The Science of Brain Disease.”

Finally, as Director of the NINDS, I wish to improve communication with the extramural research community. I hope the Institute can make clear to extramural researchers what our problems and policies are; conversely, we seek their advice and guidance. To further that process, our NINDS Advisory Council has begun a series of discussions about policy matters within the Institute. So far, at individual meetings we have discussed training, clinical trials, and multi-component grants.

As the accompanying article [see page 1] makes clear, we support a broad range of research by behavioral science researchers, and we at NINDS look forward to working with you to advance our understanding of the brain and its diseases .

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