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National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Updates – May 2022

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is our nation’s medical research agency. Its mission focuses on scientific discoveries that improve health and save lives. Founded in 1870, the NIH conducts its own scientific research through its Intramural Research Program (IRP), which supports approximately 1,200 principal investigators and more than 4,000 postdoctoral fellows conducting basic, translational and clinical research. In this blog, we will highlight recent innovative NIH research.

Recent NIH Research

A One-Stop Shop for Pain Research

Established in 2019, the NIH’s Pain Research Center provides world-leading expertise and cutting-edge technology that can assist IRP researchers in identifying the specific causes and distinct features of pain in its many forms to help make that goal a reality as swiftly as possible.

The goal of the Pain Research Center is to gather knowledge about pain in a variety of situations and utilize that information to assist researchers in developing more effective treatments. Researchers are particularly interested in finding non-addictive alternatives to opioid-based painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine, which have been linked to tens of thousands of fatalities due to overdoses in recent years.

“Our ability to better study and understand pain and develop better treatments for pain is a public health priority,” says Dr. Shurtleff, Deputy Director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the NIH.

The facility offers a wealth of resources to help, including separate testing rooms dedicated to pain tolerance and the ability to feel various stimuli such as heat and cold, pressure, and vibration. Stress response instruments and machines that allow researchers to view and even influence brain activity are all available.

“We sort of run as a center to provide resources to the NIH community, but we also run as a lab and do our own work as well,” Says Dr. Drangos, Lead Scientific Officer and one of the staff members who conduct and provide guidance to other IRP research teams on how to complete their research.

The Pain Research Center has now opened and is assisting several IRP research initiatives in various ways. You may learn more about the Pain Research Center by visiting its website.

Overturning the Orthodoxy About the Brain’s Stress Chemical

Norepinephrine, a chemical produced by certain neurons in the brain, is an essential target for anti-anxiety medicines. Often known as noradrenaline — it has long been considered a “stress hormone” that causes anxiety. Drugs designed to target the cells that produce them do not always work as intended.

IRP senior investigator Patricia Jensen, Ph.D., and her National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) colleagues are digging into the mouse brain to figure out what these neurons do and how they function.

In a 2013 study published by Dr. Jensen and her team, four genetically distinct populations of noradrenergic neurons in mice were discovered, located outside the locus coeruleus, some of which seem to work differently from those in the locus coeruleus. Furthermore, one set of these neurons is connected to areas in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that plays a crucial role in many aspects of behavior, including planning and decision making.

In another study published in 2019, Dr. Jensen’s team discovered that those neurons communicate with regions of the brain concerned with central autonomic control — the body’s nervous system’s part that regulates bodily functions we don’t have to think about, such as breathing and blood pressure.

Also, when stimulated in mice, those neurons had an antidepressant-like effect: they promoted better-coping responses to stressors such as being placed in water and reduced the rodents’ anxious behaviors.

After successfully breeding mice in which they can experimentally modulate stress-blunting noradrenergic neurons, Dr. Jensen and her research team have been working on breeding mice with the ability to shut down those nerve cells in adult mice’ brains.

“This is when the most exciting science happens when you pick up on some little thing that’s different, and you ask, ‘What’s this all about?'” Dr. Jensen reflects. “We try to encourage our students and trainees not to ignore what they’re seeing. Do the experiment and replicate it, but if you keep seeing the same thing, don’t worry if the dogma says the opposite.”

Asthma, allergy risk may be higher for children conceived with infertility treatment

According to a study by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences scientists at the National Institutes of Health, children born due to infertility treatment are at an increased risk of asthma and allergies.

The study, published on April 21, 2022, included 5,000 mothers and 6,000 children born between 2008 and 2020. Mothers were regularly asked about their and their children’s health and medical histories as part of the study. Infertility is treated with in vitro fertilization (sperms and eggs are combined in a laboratory dish and inserted into the uterus), ovulation-stimulating medications, and a procedure in which sperm are injected into the womb.

Children conceived after infertility treatment were more likely to have persistent wheeze by age 3, a sign of asthma, than children conceived without treatment. At 7 to 9 years old, the risk of asthma was 30% higher, eczema (an allergic condition resulting in rashes and itchy skin) was 77% more likely, and allergy medication usage was 45% more common among children born through treatment.

The study authors recommended further research to assess how infertility therapy and reduced parental fertility influence asthmatic and allergy development in children.

Languishing Cellular Batteries Foretell Movement Problems

Mitochondria are energy-generating complexes in the cells that measure energy levels. Doctors may be able to forecast physical capabilities in older persons by measuring the function of cellular energy-producers called mitochondria. According to recent research at the IRP, a study of our muscle cell batteries may forecast our physical abilities declining. Those who slowed down the most were more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and have a greater chance of dying.

IRB staff scientist Dr. Tian, and her team in the lab of IRP senior investigator Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., are especially interested in the notion that analyzing the energy-generating mitochondria that power our muscle cells might let them forecast age-related mobility decline.

“Mitochondrial function declines with aging, and this mitochondrial decline has been identified as a hallmark of aging,” Dr. Tian says. “Mitochondria play an important role in all cells of the body, but they are particularly critical in tissue that requires a lot of energy, such as the central nervous system, the musculoskeletal system, and the cardiovascular system, which are very important for healthy aging.”

The IRP researchers put their hypothesis to the test by analyzing data from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), a long-term study of human aging collecting data since 1958. They also studied how well participants’ muscles’ mitochondria functioned in a test.

When researchers measured participants’ walking speed several times over the study’s time frame, those with a lower mitochondrial oxidative capacity when their walking speed was assessed for the first time were significantly slower on all four walking tests a year or more later.

Further research was then conducted to see whether the link between mitochondrial health and mobility could be explained by changes in muscular strength between the initial and follow-up walking tests, suggesting that mitochondrial health could influence mobility via a variety of mechanisms.

“The fact that we established this predictivity of lower mitochondrial function in a longitudinal study has great implications towards causality,” Dr. Tian says. “This is not an experimental study, this is not an intervention study, but the value of this study is that we were able to demonstrate the temporal sequence: mitochondrial function predicted future change in mobility decline.”

If future research confirms that conclusion, doctors may one day evaluate how well older individuals’ mitochondria function to identify those most likely to see their physical abilities deteriorate. This would allow clinicians to recommend treatments such as exercise regimens or medicines already being developed that improve mitochondrial functionality to prevent mobility decline.

Upcoming Events:

Retirement Symposium for NIDCD Clinical Director Carter Van Waes

Friday, May 13, 2022, 9:30 am to 4:15 pm

How Does Diversity Impact Science?

Tuesday, May 17, 2022, 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm (registration required)

National Cancer Institute Health Disparity Workshop

Wednesday, May 25, 2022, 1:00 pm to Thursday, May 26, 2022, 5:00 pm (registration required)

Current and Future Research Needs in the Era of Highly Effective Modulator Therapies for Cystic Fibrosis

Thursday, June 2, 2022, 9:00 am to Friday, June 3, 2022, 5:00 pm (register by May 30)