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Sharing the wealth to increase Alzheimer's research

Robin BARR [Former NIA Staff],
Division of Extramural Activities (DEA).

How do we grow a field rapidly? That’s the question that drove us when we began receiving large increases in support for research on Alzheimer’s disease and its related disorders—a total of $1.3 billion across fiscal years 2014–2018. What are the quickest ways to ensure increasing numbers of high-quality applications that target this field?

Increasing the number of researchers

One of our first strategies was to add more funds to our career development line. Applications in that line are surging, too (a 25-percent increase in FY 2018 alone), and we’ve made many more awards in these recent years. We look forward to seeing the program grow as application numbers continue to increase. I’ve been around long enough to see yesterday’s career awardees become today’s lead investigators!

But we couldn’t stop there—we also needed to take advantage of our community’s existing expertise on aging and turn that knowledge to the task of advancing Alzheimer’s research. So, two years ago we started an administrative supplement program for researchers in aging who now wanted to add research on Alzheimer’s to the work in their lab. The program has proved very popular, and some of the investigators have now turned these supplements into R01 research grants with a focus on Alzheimer’s. We are delighted with the response, and we anticipate more such grants from supplement awardees over the next few years.

Including other Institutes

To keep the growth going, in FY 2017, for the first time, NIA invited supplement applications from another Institute (the National Institute on Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering). That proved a success, with our funds going to support some interesting new developments in imaging. In FY 2018, we expanded the program to include other Institutes which might want to encourage their grantees to pursue aims around Alzheimer’s and its related dementias. NIA Director Richard Hodes and I thought that perhaps 10 or so Institutes would join in. We were wrong.

Twenty-five Institutes and Offices signed on. That is almost everyone at NIH! From a cottage industry in FY 2017, we went into mass production in FY 2018! By the fiscal year’s end, we will have made more than 300 supplement awards across NIH.

The program was so popular that it became an organizational challenge. How could we manage staff review of the well north of 500 applications we received? How could we process the supplements to make awards before the end of the fiscal year, given that the deadline for submission was June 8? “It takes a village” is insufficient to reflect the extent and breadth of cooperation we had across NIH to make this program work. I thank everyone whose extraordinary combined efforts made this program happen. We faced down looming end-of-year deadlines and met them.

What did we fund?

The range of research questions addressed in these supplements is also extraordinary. Some examples of the topics we were able to support:

  • The long-term consequences of chemobrain (cognitive decline after chemotherapy) as a possible Alzheimer’s risk factor.
  • A comparison of neurodegeneration in HIV and Alzheimer’s.
  • Alzheimer’s research in Uganda.
  • The relation of diabetes to Alzheimer’s and its related dementias.
  • Tracking cognitive change in ongoing studies of large numbers of older African Americans.

And that’s only a small sample of the work we funded. It truly does give hope for major new advances in the field and gives us some real, positive feedback on our efforts to expand this field of research.

And, we’ll likely do the whole thing again in FY 2019. Only we are really, really going to start the process earlier this coming year! No more looming end-of-year deadlines!


Submitted by Ouliana Ziouzenkova on September 27, 2018

It is always surprisingly low number of funding provided to prevention and development of pharmaceuticals. None of the funded projects brought us closer to help people and their families. This samples projects also do not provide a fundamental insight into the general mechanism of disease. How we can help minorities if we do not know what triggers the disease. 80% of AD patients have diabetes yet there is no research funded for brain energetics. Or family is affected by early AD of a brilliant engineer. Yet I do not see that NIH will bring us any closer to the solution of the problem, which in my eyes is disease prevention, but not the nursing advises per phone for the devastated members of the family.

Submitted by on October 01, 2018

In reply to by Ouliana Ziouzenkova

We are trying to bring us closer to an answer to this devastating condition. The examples I chose were meant to illustrate the variety of questions asked in these supplements. I do know that we also funded multiple supplements addressing mechanisms of the disease and some also looking at the stresses of caring for someone with this condition. -- Robin Barr

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