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2017 Winter Inside NIMH

Inside NIMH Winter Edition


Welcome to the latest edition of Inside NIMH! We publish Inside NIMH in conjunction with each meeting of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, which advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Director of NIMH on all policies and activities relating to the conduct and support of mental health research, research training, and other programs of the Institute. In addition, check out our website for regular updates on timely topics at NIMH. I hope you find this information interesting and helpful. Please let us know if you have questions or comments on this edition.


Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institute of Mental Health

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I. NIMH Director’s Updates

As the new President settles into the Oval Office, I too am settling in as the Director at NIMH. While I continue to listen and learn, I have also identified some priorities for the Institute.

Presidents and Priorities

  • Changes in Leadership: With the New Year comes new opportunity, a new political landscape, and continued commitment to transform mental health care. I look forward to working with the incoming Presidential Administration to ensure that the outstanding efforts of NIMH staff and funding recipients continue to be recognized and appreciated, and that improving mental health care through research remains a priority. I am sincerely grateful to the leadership, staff, grantees, and larger NIMH community for working with me these past few months. They have welcomed me with open minds, new ideas, and patience. I would like to especially thank Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D., for his exemplary and dedicated leadership while serving as the NIMH Acting Director, and Shelli Avenevoli, Ph.D., who is continuing on as NIMH Deputy Director.
  • Listening and Learning: In order to understand what the major issues are, and where there are gaps in knowledge and gaps in our research efforts, I intend to spend most of my first year at NIMH listening and learning. I will also continue to communicate my thoughts with the broad NIMH constituency through Director’s Messages. My first message, Freshman Year, focused on diversity as the cornerstone of a strong research portfolio – diversity in subject matter, diversity in the research workforce and study participants, and diversity in time frames. Specifically, NIMH should support studies that will yield benefits on short-, medium-, and long-term timescales. I also discussed three of my research priorities: suicide prevention, neural circuits, and computational and theoretical approaches to psychiatry. In my second Director’s Message, The Push for Suicide Prevention, I outlined NIMH’s current efforts, gaps in the research, and possible approaches to suicide prevention. Research in suicide prevention has the potential to yield benefits in the short-term. In Neural Circuits Research: How and Why, my third Director’s message, I described an approach to translating neural circuit technology into novel treatment methods. This approach has the potential to yield benefits in the medium-term. Right now, our understanding of which circuits underlie certain features of mental disorders is rudimentary at best. One goal is to identify behaviors that are disruptive, and then manipulate the underlying circuits to reduce a person's disability without altering his or her abilities. Scientists can then develop treatments that aim at fine-tuning the wiring that underlies the circuitry. Finally, I believe that further development of computational and theoretical approaches to psychiatry has high potential impact. For example, computational modeling that incorporates clinical data to build predictive biomarkers or a framework for diagnosis could truly transform mental health care. An upcoming Director’s Message will focus on these approaches.
  • Updates on Ongoing NIMH and NIH Initiatives:
    • National Advisory Mental Health Council (NAMHC) Workgroup Updates: Since the last Council meeting, three NAMHC workgroups have been busy. The NAMHC workgroup on the Opportunities and Challenges of Developing Information Technologies on Behavioral and Social Science Clinical Research is finalizing a report that summarizes their discussions on new mHealth technologies. Two NAMHC workgroups recently convened to address different aspects of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) initiative. The first workgroup was tasked with identifying optimal behavioral tasks and measures to assess RDoC constructs. A report of their August 2016 discussions is now available, and highlights existing tools and areas for future task development. The second workgroup is tasked with evaluating proposed changes to the RDoC matrix. On November 3-4, 2016, they cohosted a Motor Systems Workshop with the NIMH RDoC unit. The purpose of the workshop was to develop consensus and provide advice to NIMH regarding the addition of a motor domain to the RDoC matrix. Additionally, a new genomics workgroup will advise the NAMHC on future directions in psychiatric genetics and functional genomics, including how best to address the gap in knowledge between gene discovery and mechanistic models of disease that transcend categorical DSM disease classification.
    • Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) “Office Hours”: Are you a researcher with questions about the RDoC initiative? The members of the NIMH RDoC Unit are holding monthly virtual “office hours.” Topics that may be addressed during the office hours include description of the basic principles of the initiative, general queries about designing studies and applying for grants based on RDoC principles, and the role of RDoC in relation to the general NIMH Strategic Research Priorities and other initiatives. Office hours will be held via video conference on the second Friday of every month.
    • NIMH Released New Clinical Trials Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs): On December 13, 2016, NIMH issued eight new clinical trial-specific FOAs to support clinical trial applications. NIMH requires an experimental therapeutics approach to the development and testing of interventions, in which interventions serve not only as potential treatments, but as probes to generate information about the mechanisms underlying a disorder. Changes were made to all clinical trials FOAs in an effort to clarify NIMH’s interest in this experimental therapeutics approach to the development and testing of interventions across all modalities. One major change is that there are now two separate “early stage” FOAs for the development of 1) psychosocial interventions, and 2) drugs or direct brain modulation/stimulation devices. Applicants should carefully read the FOA to which they are responding, and are strongly encouraged to contact the Scientific/Research Contact listed at the end of the relevant FOA to discuss the FOA and NIMH priorities. Also see the Applicant FAQs.
    • NIH Nearly Doubled Investment in Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative: In October 2016, NIH announced its third round of grants to support the goals of the BRAIN Initiative. This latest round of grants includes over one hundred new awards, totaling more than $70 million, and will go to over 170 investigators working at 60 institutions. These grants bring NIH’s total fiscal year 2016 investment in BRAIN to just over $150 million and expand NIH’s efforts to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action. Some NIMH-administered BRAIN projects are aimed at fine-tuning brain stimulation and other promising technologies for the treatment of mental illnesses.
    • 21st Century Cures Act Impact on Mental Health: The 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law on December 13, 2016. Overall, the mental health and substance use provisions aim to strengthen leadership and accountability at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration; increase collaboration and consultation to promote the implementation of evidence-based programs; continue support for state programs; and, provide assistance to individuals, families, and providers in accessing care and resources. The law authorizes spending $4.8 billion over ten years for the Cancer Moonshot Initiative, Precision Medicine Initiative, BRAIN Initiative, and Regenerative Medicine Program.Additional provisions relate to primary-behavioral health care integration, parity, HIPAA compliance and communication of health information, training and information dissemination, community crisis response and intervention, and guidance concerning interactions with the judicial system. Finally, the 21st Century Cures Act aims to reduce regulations and administrative burden on researchers, and includes provisions to reinforce the importance of including diverse populations in research.
    • Landmark “Common Rule” Finalized: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies issued final revisions to the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects, also known as the “Common Rule.” This revised policy aims to better protect human subjects involved in research; facilitate valuable research; and, reduce burden, delay, and ambiguity for research investigators. The final Common Rule was published in the Federal Register on January 19, 2017.

Budget Overview

  • Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 Budget: NIMH awarded an estimated 587 new and competing research project grants (RPGs) in 2016, and achieved an overall success rate of approximately 23 percent (defined as number of RPG applications funded divided by the number of applications received; see Figures 1 and 2 below). NIMH awarded grants to 84 New Investigators, and achieved a success rate of approximately 24 percent for Early Stage Investigators.

Figure 1: This chart shows the number of NIMH research project grants applications, awards, and success rates from 2012 to 2016 estimated budget. In 2012, NIMH received over 2,500 applications and awarded 584 grants, resulting in a success rate of 22%. In 2013, NIMH received over 2,500 applications and awarded 512 grants, resulting in a success rate of 19%. In 2014, NIMH recieved over 2,500 applications and awarded 548 grants, resulting in a success rate of 19%. In 2015, NIMH recieved an estimated total of 2,500 applications and awarded 507 grants, resulting in a success rate of 20%. In 2016, NIMH received over 2,500 applications and awarded 587 grants, resulting in a success rate of 23%. 

Figure 2 below shows the number of applications received and the number of awards made through the 25 th percentile for RPGs. Not included are applications/awards higher than the   25 th percentile. Note that in Figure 2, the total number of funded grants do not add up to 587, as not all grants are percentiled.

Figure 2 shows the number of applications received and the number of awards made through the 25th percentile for RPGs. 

Figure 3 below shows the NIMH budget in appropriated (current) versus constant (FY 1998) dollars. Constant dollars are “inflation adjusted” for variations in the purchasing power of the dollar over time. Dollar amounts are adjusted based on the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index (BRDPI). The annual change in BRDPI indicates how much the NIH budget must change to maintain purchasing power similar to FY 1998.

Figure 3: This chart shows NIMH program funding level in two measures, appropriated dollars and appropriated 1998 dollars, stated in millions, for fiscal years 1998 to 2016. FY 1998 appropriated amount was over $700 million. FY1999 appropriated and 1998 dollar appropriated amounts were over $800M. FY 2000 appropriated amount, and 1998 dollar appropriated amounts, were over $900M. FY 2001 appropriated amount was over $1000M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was $1000M. FY 2002 appropriated amount was over $1200M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $1000M. FY 2003 appropriated amount was over $1200M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $1000M. FY 2004 appropriated amount was over $1200M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $1000M. FY 2005 appropriated amount was $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $1000M. FY 2006 appropriated amount was $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $1000M. FY 2007 appropriated amount was $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was $1000M. FY 2008 appropriated amount was $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $900M. FY 2009 appropriated amount was over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $900M. FY 2010 appropriated amount was over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $900M. FY 2011 appropriated amount was over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $900M. FY 2012 appropriated amount was over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $900M. FY 2013 appropriated amount was over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $800M. FY 2014 appropriated amount over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $800M. FY 2015 appropriated amount over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $800M. FY 2016 appropriated amount was over $1400M and 1998 dollar appropriated amount was over $800M. 

  • FY 2017 Budget: Although FY 2017 began on October 1, 2016, there is still uncertainty regarding the NIH and NIMH budgets. In order to continue operations, a continuing resolution (CR) was signed by President Obama on September 29, 2016 to provide funding through December 9, 2016. A second CR was signed on December 10, 2016 to continue funding through April 28, 2017. Funds for the 21st Century Cures Act were provided under this latest CR in the amount of $352 million in a new NIH Innovation Account. Funds have been provided for the following Initiatives for FY 2017: Cancer Moonshot ($300,000,000), Precision Medicine Initiative ($40,000,000), BRAIN Initiative ($10,000,000), and Regenerative Medicine ($2,000,000).

    While NIMH continues to operate under a CR, the Institute is issuing non-competing research grant awards at a level lower than indicated on the most recent Notices of Award (generally up to 90 percent of the previously committed level). As in previous CRs, we look forward to upward adjustments after the final appropriation is enacted later in the fiscal year.

NIMH Staff News and Awards

  • There have been several recent changes to NIMH Leadership.
    • Shelli Avenevoli, Ph.D., was officially named NIMH Deputy Director. Dr. Avenevoli served as the Institute’s Acting Deputy Director since October 2015. In 2001, she joined NIMH as a staff scientist in the intramural research program. In 2005, Dr. Avenevoli moved to the NIMH division of extramural research as Chief of the Emotion, Mood, and Depressive Disorders Program, and became Chief of the Developmental Trajectories of Mental Disorders Branch in 2008. She has been heavily involved in a number of key NIMH efforts, including revising NIMH’s Strategic Plan for Research, re-defining the Institute’s approach to supporting research in neurodevelopment and bipolar disorder, and serving as a liaison to other agencies for special initiatives. Dr. Avenevoli received her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Temple University.
    • Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D., Director of the NIMH Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) Unit, formally retired at the end of November 2016. He will remain involved with NIMH, and particularly the work of the RDoC Unit. Dr. Cuthbert has held a number of leadership positions at NIMH, most recently serving as the NIMH Acting Director from 2015 to 2016 and as the Director of the Division of Adult Translational Research from 2009 to 2014. He also served as Chief of the Emotion Process Program, Acting Chief of the Biobehavioral Regulation Program, and Chief of the Adult Psychopathology and Prevention Research Branch while in the NIMH extramural program from 1998 to 2005. He left NIMH in 2005 to join the University of Minnesota as a professor of Clinical Psychology, returning to NIMH in 2009 to take on the coordination of RDoC. Dr. Cuthbert received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
    • Meena Hiremath, Ph.D., P.M.P., is the new Deputy Director for the Division of Extramural Activities (DEA). Dr. Hiremath comes to NIMH from the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute where she served as Director of the Office of Extramural Policy and Training. In that role, she oversaw the coordination of extramural operations, such as Council and initiative development, and staff training. She began her extramural career as a Scientific Program Analyst at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and worked as a Scientific Review Officer at National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Dr. Hiremath received her Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
    • Julie Bronder Mason, Ph.D., joined NIMH as the Deputy Director of the Office of Science Policy, Planning, and Communications (OSPPC). Dr. Mason comes to NIMH with over 13 years of NIH experience. She most recently served as Associate Director in the Center for Cancer Training at the National Cancer Institute, where she led training program development and evaluation, workforce analyses, strategic planning, and communications. Dr. Mason earned her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology from the Medical College of Virginia.
    • Beverly Pringle, Ph.D., is the new Deputy Director for the Office of Research on Disparities and Global Mental Health (ORDGMH). Dr. Pringle will also continue to serve NIMH as Chief of Global Mental Health Research. She joined NIMH’s Division of Services and Intervention Research in 2009. In 2012, Dr. Pringle worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), providing technical assistance to staff of the Mozambique Ministry of Health and of the Mozambique CDC. Previously, Dr. Pringle served NIH as Chief of the Services Research Branch in the Division of Epidemiology, Services, and Prevention Research at NIDA. Dr. Pringle received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
  • The Division of Intramural Research Programs (IRP) notes changes in leadership and staff awards.
    • Mortimer Mishkin, Ph.D., retired from the IRP faculty as of December 31, 2016, and returned in January 2017 as Scientist Emeritus in the Laboratory of Neuropsychology. Dr. Mishkin has been an IRP Principal Investigator since 1955. He headed the Section on Cognitive Neuroscience and the Laboratory of Neuropsychology, and served as Associate Director for Basic Research in the NIMH IRP (1994-1997). In his research, Dr. Mishkin used a variety of approaches to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms underlying learning and memory.
    • Arash Afraz, M.D., Ph.D., joined the NIMH IRP as a tenure-track investigator and Chief of the Unit on Neurons, Circuits and Behavior. Dr. Afraz is interested in combining interventional physiology (microstimulation, drug microinjection, and optogenetics) with neural recordings to study the functional circuitry of the neural networks that drive object recognition. Using these techniques, he previously found that precisely timed electrical stimulation of face-selective neurons in inferior temporal cortex can bias behavioral choices in a face-detection task.
    • Samer Hattar, Ph.D., joined the NIMH IRP as a Senior Investigator and Chief of the Section on Light and Biological Rhythms. Dr. Hattar comes to the NIMH from the Johns Hopkins University and School of Medicine, where he held joint Associate Professorships in the Departments of Biology and Neuroscience. His research helped define the retinal circuits and brain centers by which intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (a type of neuron in the eye that signal the presence of light over the long term) drive a variety of critical functions, such as pupillary light reflex, circadian response to light and dark, vision, sleep, and mood.
    • Karen F. Berman, M.D., Senior Investigator and Chief of the Clinical and Translational Neuroscience Branch, was elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), which is one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine.
    • Francis McMahon, M.D., Chief of the Human Genetics Branch, was named a recipient of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation’s 2016 Colvin Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Mood Disorders Research.
    • Miles Herkenham, Ph.D., Chief of the Section on Functional Neuroanatomy, received the 2017 Winter Conference on Brain Research Pioneer Award.