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Scientific partnerships with the National Institute on Aging and an update on the NIDCD’s January advisory council meeting

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February 23, 2022

Collaboration between NIH institutes is a valuable way to integrate knowledge bases, expertise, methodologies, and infrastructures and apply them toward shared goals. These partnerships bring multidisciplinary approaches to important scientific questions and lead to innovative strategies for preventing, diagnosing, and treating a wide range of health conditions. In this director’s message, I share some of our collaborations with the NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA), illustrating the value of cooperation in advancing science in new directions. I also provide a brief summary of topics discussed at our most recent National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NDCD) Advisory Council Meeting in January.

NIDCD collaborations with NIA

The NIDCD’s and NIA’s shared interest in age-related hearing loss led us to issue a joint request for applications (RFA) in 2017. The RFA resulted in multiple grant awards—totaling more than $2 million—focused on researching the central pathways and neural networks involved in age-related hearing loss. These awards have helped usher in important new advances. For example, we now have a better understanding of the mechanisms—from within the cochlea to the auditory cortex—that contribute to age-related hearing loss. Other work has uncovered details on the impact of hearing loss on brain structure, cognitive function, and the ability to communicate in noisy settings.

The success of the hearing program led us to issue another joint RFA in 2020 on balance control in older adults. The resulting awards, amounting to more than $5.5 million in total costs, center on uncovering factors that contribute to age-related loss of vestibular function and establishing a classification system for balance problems. We are eager to see the advances that emerge from these awards, which were made in late 2021.

A connection between untreated hearing loss and dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, has become increasingly clear. Starting in 2018, the NIDCD community received an infusion of funding for research in this area thanks to NIA, which established an administrative supplement program that offered investigators with existing grants the opportunity to expand their research into the area of Alzheimer’s disease and its related dementias (AD/ADRD). Like many other supplement programs at NIH, this one was intended to encourage a broad range of scientists to explore new research questions related to their originally funded work. All of our mission areas have benefited from the program, and it has led to important advances, such as recognition of the potential use of hearing loss, smell loss, vestibular impairment, and speech variations as aids in diagnosing pre-clinical or early Alzheimer’s disease. We hope that investigators will build upon data generated through the supplements and seek continued support for promising leads.

To help cultivate progress, we plan to hold an NIDCD/NIA webinar, Sharing our Science: Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, on April 7, 2022, 1:00–5:00 p.m. Eastern. The session will highlight basic and translational research on communication disorders in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias supported through the collaborative efforts of the NIDCD and NIA. Speakers will share data and ideas generated from the AD/ADRD supplement program and discuss challenges they encountered. All are encouraged to attend the online event or to view the archived version later. As always, following the NIDCD on Twitter is a good way to stay informed about upcoming events.

The NIDCD and NIA have also actively collaborated on developing guidance used to shape health policy decisions. Along with other federal agencies and a nonprofit group, the NIDCD and NIA co-sponsored the 2016 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) report, Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. The report led to 2017 legislation directing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish a new category of over-the-counter hearing aids for adults with perceived mild-to-moderate hearing loss. Consequently, in July 2021, President Biden issued an executive order that included directing the Department of Health and Human Services to issue proposed rules within 120 days for making hearing aids available over the counter. A few months later, in October, the FDA moved to propose such rules; when finalized, the rules will bring over-the-counter hearing devices within reach of millions of Americans with trouble hearing. The development of these rules was directly informed by a series of stakeholder meetings held by the NIDCD and NIA following publication of the NASEM report.

The activities I’ve highlighted here demonstrate the value of our cooperation with NIA over the past several years, and I plan to continue to work with Richard J. Hodes, M.D., NIA’s director, to foster additional research at the intersection of our institutes’ mission areas. By leveraging our unique strengths and promoting synergies, we can do more to support our mission and advance public health.

National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Advisory Council Meeting, January 27-28

On January 27-28, the institute’s advisory council convened virtually. Portions of our council meetings are open to the public, and I invite you to watch the archived videocasts of the open sessions (January 27 and January 28) and to join us online for our next meeting, to be held May 19-20, 2022. A few highlights from January’s meeting are summarized below.

  • Richard J. Hodes, M.D., director of the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, highlighted the success of recent collaborative efforts with the NIDCD, such as funding initiatives in the areas of hearing loss and vestibular function. He also spoke about the success of NIA’s Alzheimer’s-focused administrative supplements program in drawing in investigators who are new to the field, including a number of NIDCD grantees. Dr. Hodes shared recent research findings at the intersection of aging and the NIDCD’s mission areas, and affirmed his enthusiasm for continued cooperation between the two institutes. To view this segment, start at the 20 minute mark of the January 27 videocast.
  • Thomas B. Friedman, Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at the NIDCD, presented new findings from his group—and colleagues at the NIH’s National Eye Institute and the University of Maryland—on the Usher syndrome-associated gene, PCDH15. Using a mouse model, the researchers uncovered the mechanism of vision loss associated with the gene and identified a potential therapy. To view this segment, start at the 49 minute mark of the January 27 videocast.
  • Work is under way on the NIDCD strategic plan, which will define the institute’s research priorities in 2022-2027. Laura K. Cole, Ph.D., an NIDCD planning and evaluation officer in the Office of Administration, reported that an idea-generating meeting was held virtually in December 2021. The NIDCD will prioritize the recommendations at another online meeting in March, with the goal being to finalize the plan by the end of the year. To view this segment, start at the 1 hour 21 minute mark of the January 27 videocast.
  • The NIH UNITE Initiative, which aims to end structural racism in biomedical research, is nearing its first anniversary. The NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity, Marie A. Bernard, M.D., provided an update on the initiative’s progress in advancing health disparities research and diversifying the biomedical workforce within and outside NIH. The UNITE team is analyzing responses to a request for information (RFI) on approaches NIH can take to advance racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. Many of the 1,000+ responses have focused on the need to go beyond words and take action and to enhance programs and activities. To view this segment, start at the 1 hour 42 minute mark of the January 27 videocast.
  • Judith A. Cooper, Ph.D., deputy director of the NIDCD, reported on the institute’s extramural diversity and inclusiveness efforts. The council’s Working Group on Diversity and Inclusiveness presented its final report to the NIDCD in summer 2021, and we are now working to implement the recommendations. Elyssa Monzack, Ph.D., deputy scientific director of the NIDCD, then briefed the council on advances made by the NIDCD’s Intramural Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to increase diversity within the on-campus scientific workforce. To view these segments, start at the 49 minute mark and the 1 hour 9 minute mark of the January 28 videocast.
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