• August 14, 2012

    Epigenetics, the study of how the environment modifies the way the human gene is expressed, is an emerging frontier in science. Diet and exposure to environmental chemicals, among other factors, can cause epigenetic changes that may turn on or off certain genes and make people more or less susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. Positive factors, such as physical activity and enriched living conditions, may result in beneficial epigenetic changes such as a longer health span or lowered incidence of chronic diseases. These changes in gene function profoundly influence the behavior of cells and tissues and play a role in neurobiological and cognitive processes, including learning, memory, circadian rhythm, and neurodegeneration.

    Until now, little was known about how various epigenetic processes differ across different brain regions, or how the effects of those processes may influence brain activity. NIA-supported researchers investigated DNA methylation, one type of epigenetic modification that can control the level at which a gene is expressed, to produce the first annotated map of patterns of DNA methylation in the brain. Using blood samples and postmortem brain tissue from donors older than age 75 and free of any neuropathology and neuropsychiatric disease, they were able to demonstrate marked differences in methylation in six areas of the brain.

    Notably, the investigators at King’s College London, and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, found increased rates of methylation in regions involved in nervous system development and function and in neurogenesis. Research like this may, one day, result in our ability to investigate epigenetic processes in the brain by studying DNA methylation patterns in readily accessible blood samples.

    The data generated in this project are available as a resource to the genomics research community through several avenues, including integration into the Human Epigenome Atlas as part of the regular data release by the NIH Epigenomics Roadmap Initiative.

    Reference: Davies, M., et al. Functional annotation of the human brain methylome identifies tissue-specific epigenetic variation across brain and blood. Genome Biology 2012, 13:R43

  • August 7, 2012

    Every day can bring a new change or challenge for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Now, practical information and advice is at hand with a new series of online tip sheets from the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center, a service of the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

    Based the NIA publication called Caring for a Person with Alzheimer’s Disease: Your Easy-to-Use Guide from the National Institute on Aging, the tip sheets offer reliable, easy-to-understand information on a range of issues. They can help caregivers of people at any stage of the disease—mild, moderate or severe.

    Topics include managing personality and behavior changes, coping with agitation and aggression, daily activities, managing medicines, helping family and friends understand Alzheimer’s, and many more.

    To read the tip sheets, visit

  • July 31, 2012

    The deadline for applications has been extended until August 10th for Taking the Next Step: Grants Technical Assistance Workshop. The workshop is an interactive forum for pre- and post-doctoral students and recent recipients of Ph.D., M.D., or related doctoral degrees with the National Institute on Aging, the world's largest funding source for research on aging and geriatrics. During this intensive 1.5 day workshop attendees will gain an understanding of the NIH grants process from application to award, and NIA staff will discuss research priorities and opportunities in the basic biology of aging, neuroscience, behavioral and social research and clinical geriatrics and gerontology. Attendees will have the opportunity to meet in small groups with NIA staff representative of their field of interest. A session focused on research and funding opportunities in health disparities and aging will highlight this GSA pre-conference workshop.

    See more information and application.

  • August 7, 2012

    An updated service from the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) is making it easier than ever for people to find clinical research studies that are testing new ways to detect, treat, delay and prevent Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment and other dementias.

    All kinds of volunteers—people with Alzheimer’s, caregivers and healthy volunteers with and without a family history of memory problems—can visit the Center’s clinical trial-finding service at The web-based service allows people to search by treatment or other intervention, location and age—or to simply click on the U.S. map to find active trials nearby.

    For more help finding Alzheimer's and related clinical trials, users can call the ADEAR Center toll-free at 1-800-438-4380 or e-mail

  • June 15, 2012

    After 15 years of federal service, Dr. Sidney M. Stahl recently retired from his position as chief of the Individual Behavioral Processes Branch in NIA’s Division of Behavioral and Social Research. As branch chief, Dr. Stahl was responsible for areas that include health and behavior; cognitive and emotional functioning; technology and human factors; and integrative approaches to the study of social, psychological, genetic and physiological influences on health and well-being over the life course.

    During his stewardship of the branch, Dr. Stahl was directly responsible for building NIA’s research programs on elder abuse and caregiving interventions for the families of Alzheimer’s disease patients, including the REACH trial. He played a leading role at NIA in promoting diversity in aging research, most notably through his development and management of the Resource Centers on Minority Aging Research (RCMARs) and his role on the National Advisory Council on Aging Minority Task Force; he received several awards for his work on these activities.

    Dr. Lisbeth Nielsen has since been appointed chief of the Individual Behavioral Processes Branch. Since joining NIA in 2005, Dr. Nielsen has been active in developing new NIA research initiatives in neuroeconomics of aging, social neuroscience of aging, and self-reported well-being, as well as trans-NIH initiatives for the NIH Basic Behavioral and Social Science Opportunity Network and the Science of Behavior Change. She will continue to manage a portfolio of research on psychological development and integrative science, encompassing multidisciplinary research on the biological, social, and psychological determinants of well-being and health across the lifespan.

  • June 15, 2012

    A new section of the NIH website—NIH Clinical Research Trials and You—is designed to help the public and the practicing medical community understand the importance of clinical research and encourage them to participate in a clinical trial or study. The site offers information for people with particular diseases and health conditions, as well as for those who would like to participate as healthy volunteers.

    The site emphasizes the importance of clinical research to medical progress, disease prevention, and improved health. It features videos of volunteers explaining why they chose to participate in a trial and researchers describing why they are involved in clinical research. Links to Clinical and Research help visitors find and volunteer for clinical trials in their area.

    Materials for researchers and clinicians are also available. These include information on talking to patients about clinical trials, how to refer a patient to a trial, and downloadable promotional posters, flyers, and slides, including specific materials on Alzheimer’s disease. Additional resources about children in clinical studies, information for older adults, and materials in Spanish can also be accessed on the site.

  • July 1, 2012

    NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins recently unveiled a new section of the NIH website—Impact of NIH Research. This section features how NIH-supported biomedical research influences our nation’s health, economy, and communities.

    The NIA is committed to communicating the importance of NIH-supported research to many different audiences, and invites grantees and others interested in scientific research to do the same. The Impact of NIH Research website offers tools and resources that include:

    • new NIH fact sheets;
    • reports presenting the economic value of NIH-supported research;
    • an NIH Impact PowerPoint set designed for use by researchers or research advocates;
    • a collection of news reports, commentaries, Congressional testimony, and videos that point to facts about biomedical research; and
    • convenient, lay-friendly links to state-specific funding information available through NIH’s RePORT site and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).
  • July 13, 2012

    On July 12, all of the seats in the Masur Auditorium were filled for the meeting of the NIA’s Geroscience Interest Group (GSIG), a newly formed trans-NIH interest group focused on the premise that aging biology is at the base of many of the chronic diseases that form significant portions of the research portfolios of most NIH Institutes and Centers.

    The full house was no surprise: The featured speaker was NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. Dr. Collins described his research on Hutchinson Gilford Progeria Syndrome (HGPS), as well as its relevance to understanding normal aging. “It has been an amazing journey, moving very rapidly from gene discovery to clinical trials,” said Dr. Collins. HGPS is an extremely rare disorder characterized by exceptionally accelerated aging, leading to premature death at an average age of 13 years, usually from cardiovascular complications.

    Dr. Collins’ journey in this field started when, as a young physician, he was put in charge of Meg, a “real spitfire” of a young lady, he says, who was affected by the disease. His interest in HGPS was reawakened many years later when he was approached by Dr. Leslie Gordon of the Progeria Research Foundation, whose son Sam also has HGPS.

    Sparked by his encounter with Sam and others with HGPS, Dr. Collins’ laboratory put their interest into action, and in 2003 identified a single point mutation responsible for the syndrome, a silent mutation (G608G) in the gene coding for lamin A, a structural component of the nuclear envelope. Further molecular studies revealed that the mutation caused increased activation of a silent splice site, leading to the production of a truncated lamin A molecule termed progerin. Based on detailed knowledge of the biology of lamins and on his own research, Dr. Collins and his team were able to rapidly move the field toward translation so that within 5 years, a clinical trial for HGPS was begun, and, today, a second clinical trial is currently being considered.

    This is good news for the affected children and their families, who now have hope for management of HGPS. But the interest in HGPS goes beyond the disease itself. While viewed as an accelerated aging syndrome, many investigators in the aging research community have not thought these syndromes to faithfully represent normal aging. Aware of this view, Dr. Collins gave evidence of the potential for HGPS research to inform basic aging research. Not only is progerin produced by normal cells during aging, he noted, but abnormal splicing appears to be a common feature of aging, especially in cells that reach senescence via telomere loss.

    Dr. Collins is currently collaborating with NIA Director Dr. Richard Hodes, an expert in telomere biology who conducts research in his laboratory at the National Cancer Institute, to further pursue this area of research.

    “The seminar demonstrated the power of genetic and basic biology approaches not only to provide hope to individuals with rare diseases, but also to inform more common issues, including normal aging. I’m excited about the collaboration our labs have recently initiated,” said Dr. Hodes.

    During a discussion with the GSIG Executive Committee after the seminar, both Drs. Collins and Hodes reinforced their hope that this group could become a major force in trans-NIH efforts.

    “Aging biology has reached a tipping point for research,” said Dr. Felipe Sierra, GSIG founder and director of NIA’s Division of Aging Biology. “We have recent evidence that the aging process is malleable and it has been observed in several animal models that—when aging is delayed—so are the diseases and disabilities that normally accompany aging.”

    For more information on GSIG, contact Dr. Sierra at

  • June 30, 2012

    Despite efforts over many years to develop the biomedical science workforce pipeline for underrepresented minorities, results have been disappointing. In response to this unacceptable status quo, highlighted in a devastating description of the lack of progress in an August 19, 2011, report in Science, the NIH Director charged his Advisory Committee to the Director to form a special Diversity in Biomedical Research Working Group to see how NIH could devise a more effective plan to diversity the research workforce.

    On June 13, 2012, the Working Group offered its report and recommendations. The group focused on five key transition points in the pipeline from entry into graduate school to receipt of first independent research funding to awarding of tenure at an academic position or equivalent in an industrial setting. It offered 13 recommendations in five broad areas: data collection/evaluation; mentoring/career preparation and retention; institutional support; bias‐related research and intervention testing; and NIH diversity strategy and infrastructure. The executive summary and the full report are available at

    “The face of America is becoming more diverse and the biomedical workforce needs to reflect that diversity,” said NIA Deputy Director Dr. Marie Bernard, “NIA is committed to helping to achieve this, participating in a number of NIH-wide diversity programs and supporting two training programs unique to NIA.”

    See more information for prospective grantees about NIH programs to diversify the research workforce.

  • June 1, 2012

    In the brain, neurons use tightly controlled chemical and electrical signals to communicate with one another in complex networks. Low levels of a protein that facilitates these signals are associated with Alzheimer’s-related memory problems in a mouse model of the disease, according to NIH-supported scientists at the University of California, San Francisco. Restoring levels of the protein, known as Nav1.1, improved learning and memory in the mice and increased lifespan.

    The investigators measured brain-wave activity in mouse models with high levels of beta-amyloid, a pathological hallmark of Alzheimer’s, in the brain. They found that specific abnormalities occurred during periods of reduced gamma-wave oscillations, a type of brain wave involved in regulating learning and memory. They further found that Nav1.1 levels in specialized nerve cells known as parvalbumin cells were decreased in these mice, suggesting an association between reduced Nav1.1 levels and abnormal brain-wave activity. The mice also had impaired memory and decreased lifespan compared with normal mice. However, when Nav1.1 levels were restored, brain-wave activity returned to normal, memory improved, and lifespan increased, despite the continued presence of high levels of beta-amyloid in the brain.

    Further research is needed to see if these findings might extend from mice to humans. But, these observations provide important clues about a potential mechanism involved in network and cognitive dysfunctions. Gamma wave alterations like those addressed in this Alzheimer’s study also occur in other neurological disorders, including epilepsy, autism, and schizophrenia, suggesting that these findings may have implications for these conditions as well.

    Reference: Verret L., et al. Inhibitory interneuron deficit links altered network activity and cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer model. Cell 149: 708-721, April 27, 2012.