COVID-19: Impact on Biomedical Research

There has been a lot of discussion these days about the COVID-19 pandemic and its short- and long-term effects. And with good reason! The impact of the pandemic has hit us all in so many ways – physical and mental health, work and family responsibilities, economic challenges, educational timelines, to name just a few. But there is relatively little in the lay or biomedical literatures about the likely long-term effects of the pandemic on biomedical research and those who do it.

People and families affected by neurological disorders depend critically on neuroscience and neurology research for new answers and solutions to the disorders that challenge them. What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on this research and its workforce, and which of these effects are likely to outlast the pandemic itself?

AAN President Orly Avitzur, M.D. moderates a panel featuring (from left to right): Nina Schor, M.D., Ph.D., Merit Cudkowicz, M.D., and Brenda Branwell, M.D.
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Caring for Kids (and Others) in an Online Work Environment

Between the end of September and the beginning of October, I “attended” the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the Child Neurology Society, an organization I have long considered to be my professional home away from home. You doubtless realize that “attended” is in quotation marks because, as a result of the pandemic, I participated virtually in this meeting. Being a child neurologist of a certain age as they say, the Society’s members consist largely of people who trained me and my peers; people who were my peers in training; and people whom my peers and I trained. This makes the Child Neurology Society’s annual meeting a kind of family reunion for me. As such, what better topic on which for me to be a symposium speaker than “The Tiny Elephant in the Zoom Room: Harnessing a Crisis to Recover, Maintain and Enhance Career Development in Child Neurology”?

The symposium discussed data, questions, and potential solutions around the topic of combining family caretaking responsibilities with the development of a professional career in child neurology. Its lecturers covered careers focused on education, clinical medicine, and research. All of the talks and the panel discussion, including all four lecturers and four additional discussants, included rigorously accrued data and proposed solutions as well as personal anecdotes and advice. Although this particular symposium focused on child neurology, none of its findings are unique to that discipline. The group is planning a detailed manuscript and hopes to launch a national discussion that results in iterative development and implementation of responses and solutions to this challenge. But I feel compelled, while they are fresh in my mind and exquisitely relevant to the present moment, to present a few overarching points:

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What Can NIH Do? What Can’t NIH Do? How Can We Work Together?

My recent column about post-acute COVID syndrome generated a lot of feedback, and one of the most common questions I got asked is, “Why don’t you tell Congress they need to allocate funding for [Disease X]?  It is so common, so disabling, so deadly, and so costly for patients, families, and society.  You need to tell them to allocate a fraction of their budget to conquer [Disease X].” 

This common question has a very, very simple answer: It is against Federal law for NIH or any Federal employee to lobby Congress.  We simply cannot advocate for ourselves, our scientific community, or specific patient and family constituencies.  We are permitted to educate members of Congress, but even that, only when asked to do so. 

Another question I am often asked is, “Why doesn’t NINDS just declare that, this year, we are going to spend our money on understanding, treating, and curing [Diseases A, B, and C] because they are so prevalent and so negatively impact  the lives of patients and families.”  Each NIH institute has a different way of making its funding decisions.  While Congress has allocated funds to some disease- or condition-specific programs that NINDS leads or co-leads, NINDS generally has not. 

This decision grows directly from our long-term vision and strategy.  Our vision sets its sights on easing the burden of patients with neurological disorders – not a specific type of patient or a specific neurological disorder, but all people affected by any and all neurological disorders. 

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Combating Pain and Preventing Addiction

September is Pain Awareness Month. In recognition of this, NINDS Director Walter Koroshetz and National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA) Director Nora Volkow have written a blog post highlighting NIH’s efforts to foster research, education, and patient care.

Pain is a symptom, a condition, not a disease.  But do not let this fool you.  Pain is among the most common and most disabling conditions known.  It can be acute (sudden in onset and relatively short-lived) or chronic (long-lasting).  Acute pain, most often with a known cause, sometimes becomes chronic pain.  Often, it is not known why the transition occurs or why the pain persists.

It is estimated that between 20 and 30% of people have been affected by pain that lasted at least 24 hours in the past 6 months.  Pain can afflict anyone at any age.  While scientists have learned a great deal about pain and have developed medications, devices, and techniques that counteract some of the steps in the pathway that leads to initiation, production, and perception of pain, many medications that are effective against pain are addicting and those that are not are ineffective against the most severe and most chronic painful conditions.

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Diversification of the Neuroscience Workforce: Not One Size Fits All

In August 2019, NINDS welcomed more than 35 female Prince George’s County Public School STEM students at the Girls Navigating Neuroscience program (click image to learn more)
Image Credit: Chia-Chi Charlie Chang

Given that the word “diverse” means “made up of many different kinds,” it has always seemed odd to me that we think of the process of diversification in one dimension only. Recent studies have suggested that not only the degree but also the nature of diversification within the biomedical workforce differs among race and ethnicity, gender, level of expertise, and programmatic career focus. There can be no single specific recipe for achieving equity and inclusion; it requires, rather, a living, evolving, and creative cookbook!

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