Alan E. Guttmacher was appointed director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in July 2010. He previously served as the institute’s acting director, and in numerous leadership capacities within the Human Genome Research Institute. Guttmacher is a highly regarded pediatrician, geneticist, and a decade-long leader and visionary within NIH. He has played a significant role in supporting the mission of NICHD and in identifying new scientific opportunities in support of its mission to improve health outcomes across the life span.
Q: What are your top priorities for NICHD?
My top priority for NICHD is simply to accomplish our noble, but challenging, mission: “to ensure that every person is born healthy and wanted, that women suffer no harmful effects from reproductive processes, and that all children have the chance to achieve their full potential for healthy and productive lives, free from disease or disability, and to ensure the health, productivity, independence, and well-being of all people through optimal rehabilitation.”
Q: NICHD’s mission spans the life cycle, covering all stages of human development. Given such a broad mandate, what is the greatest challenge to NICHD’s pursuit of its mission, and what role does neuroscience play?
Perhaps the greatest challenge is that the most important questions we seek to answer are, unsurprisingly, hard ones. The neuroscience community will play a key role in answering many of these questions, such as how do humans learn, what are the causes of autism, how can we develop more effective prostheses and other assistive devices, etc.
And, recognizing that a great challenge (and opportunity) for all of NIH is that today’s best science often involves multidisciplinary teams and approaches that cross the historical boundaries that some would claim divide NIH institutes. NICHD also works closely with other NIH institutes and centers in many efforts of interest to the neuroscience community, from neuroplasticity to the epigenetics of the developing nervous system, from cognition to rehabilitation medicine.
Of course, NICHD strongly encourages investigator-initiated proposals, in the areas above, as well as other emerging areas of interest to the neuroscience community, to move research forward. We are also very interested in supporting pre- and postdoctoral training in neuroscience to help strengthen the intellectual capital of the field and grow the future workforce in neuroscience research.
Q: How will NICHD prioritize within specific scientific areas and target groups of scientists given the current funding constraints?
NICHD will set priorities based both on scientific opportunity and public health impact. One way we are working to accomplish this is through a scientific vision process, recently underway, to identify the most promising scientific opportunities of the next decade across the breadth of our institute’s mission.
Over the coming months, we will hold a series of small workshops on nine different themes, including development, cognition, plasticity, and other NICHD research areas. These workshops will involve a diverse mix of researchers and clinicians — neuroscientists included — and others weighing in on the research questions they think are most critical. Throughout the process, we will post updates and accept comments from the research community and the public at www.nichd.nih.gov/vision.
My hope is that, despite current funding constraints, this process will stimulate creative thinking and cross- disciplinary collaborations, inside and outside of NICHD, and give us new momentum to overcome some of the biomedical and public health challenges we face.
Q: NICHD recently reported research on the impact of combat-deployed parents on the emotional and behavioral development of their children. How can NICHD work with neuroscientists to gain greater understanding of the complexities of human reactions to war and deployment?
Neuroscientists can play an important role in at least two areas. The first is the impact of wartime engagements and deployments of military personnel on families, particularly children. The second is the rehabilitation of those injured during wartime, particularly those with traumatic brain injury.
NICHD is interested in understanding more about the unique stressors facing military families and discovering strategies to overcome them. This relates directly to such neuroscience areas as variation in autonomic reactivity, HPA axis function, and how neural systems involving the corpus callosum and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex function after exposure to violence and trauma.
Because of the prevalence of improvised explosive devices in the Iraq conflict, the long-term effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) among returning soldiers is also a major concern. The NICHD supports an active program to understand TBI and stroke, and recently funded six R01 grants to improve outcomes in TBI. Because studies using targeted agents to improve outcomes in TBI were largely unsuccessful, this Request for Applications solicited studies to obtain preclinical data on the effects of using multiple drug combinations to target the array of physiological changes associated with TBI. We hope the findings from these studies lead to more effective treatments in the future.
Q: Are there new funding initiatives in the NICHD pipeline and how can neuroscientists support these efforts?
We anticipate that many new initiatives will emerge from the NICHD scientific vision process, and that the neuroscience community will find a number of them worth pursuing. Of course, the community should also be aware of the five areas of special opportunity that NIH Director Francis Collins outlined when he came on board as NIH Director a year ago: high-throughput technologies, translational medicine, healthcare reform, global health, and efforts to reinvigorate and empower the biomedical research community.
Another way that neuroscientists can support both new initiatives and biomedical research in general is to share the importance of their work with the public and with policy leaders. For instance, inviting members of your Congressional delegation and their staffs to visit your lab is often a wonderful way to showcase the intellectual and economic power of neuroscience research, as well as its impact on improving human health and well-being.
Q: How is NICHD engaging with the larger Blueprint for Neuroscience Research framework?
NICHD is a strong supporter of the Blueprint, and we have been actively involved in developing workshops, research initiatives, and training and education opportunities in neuroscience as part of the Blueprint. Perhaps our main contribution has been to bring a developmental perspective to these conversations. For example, we helped ensure the NIH Toolbox for Assessment of Neurological and Behavioral Function would be geared toward children as well as adults. Studies of the Toolbox assessment now include samples with individuals as young as three years of age. We also secured funding to expand a large neuroimaging database, funded by Blueprint, to include diffusion tensor images from additional participants, newborns up to 22-year-olds.
Another major trans-NIH initiative that may interest the neuroscience community is the Basic Behavioral and Social Science Network, or OppNet, which Director Collins launched in November of last year. OppNet initiatives are multi-disciplinary, and many include roles for neuroscientists, like the current initiatives on sleep and self-regulation.