Programs in Neuroscience
Neuroscience is the study of the brain and nervous system. Each
day, neuroscientists are unraveling the mysteries of the human brain, answering
questions such as: What is the mind? Why do we feel emotions? How do we learn,
remember, and process information? What are the underlying causes of
neurological and psychiatric disorders?
Neuroscientists investigate the molecular and cellular levels of the nervous
system; the systems within the brain, such as vision and hearing; and
behavior produced by the brain.
This research provides the basis for
understanding the medical fields concerned with treating nervous system
disorders. These medical specialties include neurology, neurosurgery,
psychiatry and ophthalmology.
Neuroscientists have made enormous strides in understanding our most mystifying
organ and treating disorders of the brain and nervous system that affect an
estimated 50 million Americans each year. Stroke, spinal cord injury, chronic
pain, learning disabilities, depression - these are but a few of the areas being
addressed by neuroscientists.
Neuroscience research includes the following:
- Basic research in neurochemistry, neurogenetics, neuropathology, and
other fundamental neurosciences, to identify the secrets of the brain
and nervous system opening the door to new clinical opportunities.
- Applied research to understand the brain's control of behavior, mood
and innate creativity, and clinical trials to develop and bring to the
market effective therapeutics for the treatment of neurological
diseases, including research on the availability, access, use, and costs
of mental health care and further development of promising model
programs and treatments.
- Research efforts in the genetic basis of neurological disorders to
address the increasing evidence of the genetic basis for many diseases.
- Mechanisms of repair to identify how the brain restores itself after
being damaged and to further explore the fundamental neurobiology of the
normal nervous system.
- Training of research scientists and clinicians in the field of
neuroscience, to develop the basis for tomorrow's research.
Statistics Regarding Neurological Diseases And Disorders
- 50 million Americans have a permanent, neurological disability that
limits their daily activities.
- 1 in 3 Americans will experience some form of mental disorder at
some point in their lives, and more people are hospitalized with
neuropsychiatric disorders than any other disease.
- 18 million Americans suffer from depression. Disability from
depression exceeds that of diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal, and
lung diseases, and costs $43.7 billion annually.
- More than 1 in 20 Americans have developmental disorders of the
nervous system, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, mental
retardation, and learning disorders. Health care associated with these
disorders costs $30 billion annually.
- 9 million children and adolescents in the U.S. are affected by a
mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder; only one third of them
- 4 million older Americans suffer from Alzheimer's Disease at a cost
of $100 billion each year, primarily from nursing home and other costs
of long term care.
- 3 million incidences of stroke are reported each year at a cost of
$30 billion. 1,200 Americans are new stroke victims every day; 1/3 of
these die and 1/3 are permanently disabled.
- 3 million Americans are affected by panic disorders during their
lifetimes. The suicide rate for these individuals is 20 times that of
the general population.
- 2 million Americans suffer from schizophrenia, the most chronic and
disabling of mental illnesses. The cost for treatment is $32.5 billion
annually. Approximately 300,000 new cases are diagnosed every year.
- 1 million Americans suffer from genetic disorders resulting in brain
and nerve damage. More than 1000 of these genetic disorders have been
identified, many of which result in disability or death.
- 1 million cases of traumatic head injury are reported each year,
resulting in 100,000 deaths and health costs of $25 billion.
- 500,000 Americans suffer from Parkinson's Disease incurring health
costs of $6 billion annually.
- 250,000 cases of traumatic spinal cord injury are reported each year
at a cost of $10 billion annually.
- 40,000 Americans are stricken with brain tumors each year, resulting
in paralysis or death.
- 25,000 Americans are afflicted with Huntington's Disease and another
125,000 are at risk.
- 2 million people suffer from nerve and muscle disorders, such as Lou
Gehrig's Disease and nerve damage associated with diabetes.
- Each year, addiction to tobacco and illicit drugs kills more than
400,000 people. An understanding of the underlying neurobiological
causes of addiction is leading to more effective treatments.
- 14 million adult Americans meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol
abuse and alcoholism. Costs associated with these disorders are $98.6
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the leading known preventable cause
of mental retardation. FAS costs are estimated at $2 billion per year in
the United States.
- The retina of the eye is also part of the brain; for researchers, it
is the most accessible part of the brain. Retinal tissue is full of
nerve cells essential for vision.
- By the year 2030, an estimated 6.3 million Americans will have some
form of macular degeneration, a disease that destroys the center of the
retina and has no effective treatment in most cases. Blindness or vision
loss are the result.
- More than 100,000 Americans have retinitis pigmentosa, a disease
that destroys specific nerve cells in the retina. Most people with
retinitis pigmentosa are blind by the age of 40.
Economic Burden of Brain Diseases and Disorders
- Brain-related diseases and injuries are estimated to exceed over
half a trillion dollars a year in health care, lost productivity and
other economic costs.
- Brain-related disorders account for the majority of our nation's
long term care costs, and, when combined with psychiatric disorders,
account for more hospitalization and prolonged care than almost all
other diseases combined.
- Federal disability payments attributed to severe mental illnesses
amount to $14 billion annually, 25 percent of total payments.
- Eye diseases and vision disorders are expensive. Each year, society
pays $38.4 billion in direct and indirect costs.
Potential Savings From Brain Research
- A five year delay in the on-set of Alzheimer's Disease could cut
health care spending by as much as $50 billion annually.
- A five year delay in the on-set of stroke could save $15 billion
- A five year delay in the on-set of Parkinson's Disease could save as
much as $3 billion each year in health care costs.
Economic Benefits of Biomedical Research
- NIH research helps support skilled jobs both in NIH-supported
laboratories and in the many U.S. companies that provide materials and
instruments used in research.
- Successes in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are
directly related to NIH support of clinical and especially laboratory
research. In 1994, the 1,311 U.S. biotechnology firms employed 103,000
people and generated $11.2 billion in revenues.
- The top 15 U.S. pharmaceutical industries employ more than 350,000
people and earn profits of $13.3 billion on sales of $84.8 billion.
Recent Discoveries/Opportunities in Brain Research
- Gene therapy may lead to treatment for Alzheimer's - Based on a
study involving primates, scientists may soon be able to employ genetic
engineering to treat such devastating human diseases as Alzheimer's and
Parkinson's disease. Studies reveal that a substance called human nerve
growth factor, a naturally occurring protein, has beneficial effects on
- When genetically engineered growth factor-producing cells were
injected into the brains of monkeys, deterioration was reversed in up to
92 percent of diseased brain cells.
- Nerve cell grafts may repair spinal cord injury - NIH-funded
scientists recently discovered a group of proteins named netrins that
act as long-range guidance signals for sprouting nerve cells during
development. Information about how netrins work to guide new nerve cell
projections may lead to treatments for regenerating nerves after injury
and refined methods of nerve grafting and transplantation.
- Parkinson's advance - Studies of a procedure called pallidotomy,
which destroys overactive neurons in a brain region called the globus
pallidus, show that many patients improve significantly following
treatment. One new study shows a marked reduction in rigidity and
paralysis, improved motor responses to Parkinson's drugs, and
disappearance of uncontrolled movements following pallidotomy. The
procedure is now being tested in an NIH sponsored clinical study that
should determine which patients are best suited for surgery and how long
the benefits of pallidotomy will last.
- Protein yields clues to Huntington's disease - New studies reveal a
protein that binds to abnormal molecules and may lead to the first
effective treatment for Huntington's disease.
- HAP-1 is the first molecule shown to bind to huntingtin, the protein
that is damaged in Huntington's disease. While huntingtin is found in
many regions of the body, HAP-1 is found only in brain cells affected by
the disease. This suggest that it causes the brain damage seen in
Huntington's disease and that agents that block it from working may be
able to prevent this disorder.
- Emergency treatment for stroke - Extensive NIH-supported laboratory
research on the mechanism of blood clotting contributed to the
development of clot-dissolving drugs such as t-PA. This research and its
applications already have important implications for stroke. With the
brain starved of oxygen and other nutrients, damage follows quickly and
often with devastating effect. Researchers now have shown that the
clot-dissolving drug t-PA is an effective emergency treatment for
strokes when given within 3 hours of initial symptoms.
- Genes protect against stroke damage - Researchers have also
identified several genes that protect nerve cells against death when
they are exposed to stress caused by factors such as stroke. Scientists
hope to find ways to manipulate these genes to improve nerve cell
survival in stroke and degenerative neurological diseases.
- Synaptic proteins yield clues into muscular dystrophy - Scientists
studying how synapses form between nerve and muscle cells have
identified a protein called agrin that is secreted by nerve cells and
causes clustering of important molecules in the muscle cell. Receptors,
or protein docking sites, for agrin are closely related to a molecule
called dystroglycan that is linked to several forms of muscular
dystrophy. Understanding how agrin and dystroglycan work could help
scientists understand why muscle cells die in muscular dystrophy and
lead to new treatments for the disease.
- Altered breathing linked to "crib death" - Researchers have found
clues to the early signs of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which
may lead to ways of screening infants for risk of SIDS. In these babies,
many show altered breathing patterns as early as the first week of life.
- Deciphering the schizophrenic brain - Using a brain imaging
technique called positron emission tomography, or PET, scientists have
shown that patients with schizophrenia use as much of their brain to
perform a very simple sound discrimination task as normal people do when
performing a demanding task. The abnormal mental strategies could result
from factors such as abnormal brain wiring. Understanding why they occur
will lead to an improved understanding of the disease.
- Genetic error linked to mental retardation - Recent studies reveal
that mutations, or errors, in a gene called L1 cause severe
malformations in human brain development that can lead to mental
retardation and other abnormalities. Studies of L1's function in the
brain may reveal ways of mimicking its protein product in a way that
will help individuals suffering from these syndromes. Other research has
shown that alcohol, even at moderate amounts, impairs the function of
the L1 protein. This mechanism may explain the sever mental impairment
seen in fetal alcohol syndrome and other alcohol-related birth defects.
- The brain and blood pressure - Recent studies show that three of
eight tiny brain organs called circumventricular organs sense
blood-borne hormones and signal the brain to change body functions to
maintain normal balances of body fluids and blood pressure. Destruction
of these organs, or their connections to the brain, prevents development
of hypertension in animal models. They also are thought to underlie
development of high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
- Drug improves learning in elderly - A drug now used for brain
injuries has been found to dramatically improve learning in the elderly.
Scientists believe it could one day be used to counteract the mental
decline that accompanies normal aging. It also shows potential for
alleviating certain symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and may help to
minimize brain damage caused by stroke or injury.
- Men's and women's brains work differently - A recent study found
activation of different brain regions when males and females performed
several tasks involved in reading. In light of a 20 percent rate of
reading disabilities spread equally among boys and girls upon entry to
school, the research is especially significant because it may help
explain why females are better able to compensate for reading
- New treatment helps dyslexics learn language - Computer-generated
speech that slows and enhances specific sounds in language can help
children with one type of dyslexia advance as much as two years in their
language comprehension skills with just one month of training.
- Researchers believe the training induces permanent changes in the
ability to understand spoken and written language. Similar strategies
may be effective for other forms of dyslexia and reading disabilities.
- Children learn native languages in infancy - Recent studies show
that infants begin to differentiate between sound in their native
language as early as the fourth month of life. The findings may help
explain why some infants who have recurring ear infections later have
difficulties manipulating language. The studies also suggest that the
exaggerated language, or "motherese," that parents use to speak to
infants help them learn their native language.
- Serotonin shortage provokes aggression - Researchers have found that
low levels of the brain chemical serotonin lead to increased
aggressiveness in healthy men. Similar research found that low levels of
serotonin led to increased autistic behavior such as rocking and hitting
themselves. These finding have prompted clinical trials of a drug that
increases serotonin levels to treat autism. They may lead to new
treatments for other potentially violent individuals.
- New treatment approved for alcoholism - A product of neuroscience
research, Naltrexone is the first new medication in 45 years approved
for the treatment of alcoholism.
- Multiple sclerosis treatments - Two forms of the immunosuppressant
drug beta interferon have now been approved for the treatment of
relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. Beta interferon may actually
slow the progression to physical disability and reduce the number of
exacerbations. When attacks do occur, they tend to be less severe and
shorter in duration. MRI scans, used to chart the course of the disease,
indicate that beta interferon lessens the destruction of myelin, the
fatty substance surrounding nerves that is damaged in multiple
- Common drug linked to lowered incidence of cerebral palsy - Treating
mothers with an inexpensive and relatively safe drug called magnesium
sulfate shortly before they give birth has been linked to a reduced
incidence of cerebral palsy (CP) in very low birthweight babies. Low
birthweight babies have an increased risk of CP, a movement disorder
which causes lifelong disability and suffering for thousands of
Americans. An NIH study compared a group of very low birthweight
children with moderate or severe CP to a control group of very low
birthweight children without the disability. Many more mothers of
children in the control group received magnesium sulfate during their
pregnancy, suggesting that use of the drug might significantly decrease
the incidence of CP.
- Researchers have identified the genes involved in some retinal
diseases -Understanding the mechanisms underlying these diseases may
help scientists develop effective treatments, and may provide insight
into other disorders that cause nerves throughout the nervous system to
- During strokes, parts of the brain don't get enough oxygen,
resulting in disabilities for the victim - Recent studies of the retina
show that lack of oxygen triggers a series of events that are toxic to
nerve cells. These studies may provide insights into how to protect
brain cells from damage caused by strokes.
- Studies on how to promote regrowth of damaged nerve cells -
Scientists are conducting studies on how to promote regrowth of damaged
nerve cells in the visual system, and how to prevent degeneration of
healthy ones. These studies have applications to other areas of the
nervous system as well.
- The visual centers of the brain are the most widely studied parts of
the central nervous system - Scientists have mapped the visual centers,
and have identified their functions. By manipulating these areas,
researchers have gained a better understanding of critical periods in
- New studies regarding optic neuritis - Multiple sclerosis is a
crippling disease of the central nervous system. More than half of the
people who develop optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve,
go on to develop multiple sclerosis. Researchers have found that oral
corticosteroid alone - the standard treatment for optic neuritis - is
not effective in treating the eye condition, and may increase the risk
of future attacks; however, researchers also have found that combined
oral and intravenous doses reduce the risk of developing multiple
sclerosis in first-time optic neuritis sufferers.
What Does The American Public Think About Medical Research?
A recent Harris poll conducted for the non-profit
organization called Research! America showed that:
- 65 percent of Americans oppose cuts in medical research dollars.
- 73 percent would pay higher taxes to support more medical research.
- 61 percent urge Congress to provide tax incentives for private
industry to conduct medical research.
- 60 percent are willing to designate tax refund dollars for medical
- 61 percent would like more information on medical research in the
print and broadcast media.
Funding for The National Institutes of Health
Our national investment in the NIH during the past 40 years has produced
a wealth of opportunities in basic and clinical science that ultimately will
alleviate many of the diseases and disorders afflicting millions worldwide.
The historical support of the NIH by Congress and both Republican and
Democratic administrations has produced a comprehensive network of
scientists and technicians at more than 1,700 institutions across the United
We are closer than we have ever been to scientific breakthroughs in the
understanding of many diseases and disorders which afflict millions of
Americans every day. The pace at which these discoveries proceed is directly
related to our federal investment in biomedical research. If we falter in
our commitment to basic medical research, numerous opportunities for
understanding the basic mechanisms of disease, and the eventual treatments
and cures derived from this knowledge will be delayed.
Our continued world leadership in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and health
care delivery industries, and the economic benefits from these enterprises
are directly affected by our continued strong federal commitment to