Neuroscience on the NIH Campus and the NINDS Intramural Research Program

So far in this blog, we have talked about two major components of NINDS: the Office of the Director, which oversees and supports everything NINDS does, and the extramural program, which supports research being done in labs throughout the United States and around the world. Here I will discuss a third component to NINDS—our own research program housed on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md.

John Edward Porter Neuroscience Research Center, NIH Campus, Bethesda, Md.

In many ways, the NINDS Intramural Research Program (IRP) is very much like a research center or the research component of a department at a university medical center elsewhere in the United States. There are principal investigators—doctors and scientists who run laboratories and research clinics that perform basic, translational, and clinical research. These labs also support experienced staff scientists and staff clinicians; post-doctoral fellows—scientists who have finished graduate school but are continuing their training; residents and fellows who are doctors getting more specialized training in neurology or neurosurgery; and graduate and post-baccalaureate students.

 The projects underway at the NINDS IRP help us understand normal body function and what goes wrong in disease; allow us to design and test new diagnostic techniques, medicines, and outcome measures; and create new devices to get a more accurate view of health and disease. The IRP’s laboratories and research clinics work on the molecules, cells, and networks that allow us to think, talk, remember, and go about our daily lives. Using sophisticated research techniques, they study a variety of neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, neuroAIDS,  and COVID-19.

There are some ways in which the NINDS IRP differs from a university research center, where each principal investigator applies for grants (often from the extramural part of NINDS) to obtain funding to conduct their research. Every grant application describes a particular project, and agencies like the NINDS decide whether that particular project is relevant to their mission and is well designed. The principal investigators at NINDS IRP do not write grant applications for individual projects. Instead, every few years they write a summary of their research group’s accomplishments and plans for the next three or four years. The funding they receive from NINDS is not for a specific project but for all the activities of the laboratory or research clinic over the next three or four years. This gives NINDS investigators the freedom to take intellectual risks, be maximally creative, and follow the science wherever it leads them. They also tend to have fewer obligations either in the clinic or to their departments compared to their university colleagues, giving them more time to spend on research.

Clinical research at the NIH takes place in a dedicated hospital setting. Neither patients nor insurance carriers are billed; care is part of the research protocol and is paid for by the NIH. If a study is approved to be conducted in the NIH Clinical Center, patients and their families can travel to and be housed at the NIH while they participate in the study’s protocol; know that they are contributing to our understanding and treatment of their disease; and possibly benefit from treatments not yet available in non-research settings. Because the studies are paid for by NIH, the NINDS IRP is able to study the rarest of rare disorders, and often patients are able to be treated at the NIH Clinical Center when their doctor is unable to determine a cause for their condition.

The NINDS Intramural Research Program is a national resource of proportions that far outstretch its number of investigators, labs, and clinics. It makes possible the kind of on-campus research that could uncover many clues to the normal function and the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the human nervous system. The research performed by researchers in the IRP is often unique and cannot be performed anywhere else, and because it is located on the NIH campus, there are many opportunities to collaborate with other experts in many disease areas. Additionally, NINDS IRP often plays a central or collaborative role in much of the neuroscience research happening at NIH, putting it at the forefront of cutting-edge science.