She has always stood as a beacon to a better way of life. And for millions, America was truly a land of opportunity, a place where ambitions could be pursued and dreams could be realized. But life here was not without risk. Throughout the world, deadly microbes were taking a tremendous toll. Diseases ran rampant through the population with little or no resistance. In the 19th century, cholera alone killed millions worldwide. Life was precious and fragile. An American child born in 1887 had an average life expectancy of just 45 years. Throughout our country, there are many reminders of those not fortunate enough to see the ripe old age of 45. Today, the average life expectancy of an American is over 75 years. In just over a century, devastating diseases such as cholera, small pox, and pellagra have been virtually eliminated in the U.S. Dozens more life-threatening ailments are now treatable and controllable because of medical research and public health interventions.
The foremost medical research institution in the U.S. is the National Institutes of Health. The National Institutes of Health, or NIH, funds medical research on its campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and at research institutions throughout the United States and the world. Our institutes and centers are the front lines for investigating and treating diseases. Through the development of new therapies and an understanding of the processes of life, the NIH has contributed to practically every medical advance in our lifetime. Our roots go back to 1887 in a one-room laboratory of hygiene at the Marine Hospital in Staten Island, New York. Its first accomplishment was the isolation of cholera. By 1938, after a name change and several site locations, a cornerstone was laid for the burgeoning new National Institute of Health. As World War II was beginning, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over its opening dedication ceremony.
Our intramural research programs conduct scientific investigations right on our 300-acre campus in over 50 buildings. Among them is the largest research hospital in the world. Sixteen thousand employees are here working to advance medical science. Studies that we fund elsewhere around the country and the world are coordinated by our extramural research program. The multi-billion-dollar budget allocated by Congress to the NIH significantly contributes to the nation’s medical research efforts. Roughly 80 percent of that budget goes to extramural research and training through grants at universities, medical schools, hospitals, and other research centers. Sixty thousand scientists at over 1,700 American institutions are doing important work funded by NIH grants. We also aid critical research in many foreign institutions. All of this research is aimed toward one critical goal: Better health for all of us.
The importance of our work has long been recognized. The Nobel Prize has been awarded to nearly 100 scientists whose work was supported by the NIH. Through a competitive grant system, panels of scientific experts evaluate all grant applications to determine the best ideas to support with our funding. NIH scientists include basic researchers and clinical investigators. Through laboratory research, basic researchers look for the fundamental mechanisms underlying health and disease, how tissues function, how cells grow, and how genes direct it all. Clinical investigators find ways to transfer basic knowledge into medical practices. They learn how to apply new and more effective treatments, implement new strategies for preventing disease, and develop better diagnostic techniques.
Our institutes examine various research challenges from different perspectives, each dedicating its efforts to a single very broad field. We not only write medical history, we also share it through the National Library of Medicine. It houses the largest collection of medical archives and medical data in the world, including the volumes of findings resulting from millions of hours of NIH medical research. While we are hard at work to understand the complexities of life, we stand at the brink of incredible discoveries. The NIH will continue its important work of seeking innovative ways to detect, prevent, treat, and cure diseases while educating people in lifestyle practices that can lead to a longer, healthier life. Average life expectancy has increased 30 years in just over a century. The NIH is proud of the contributions our research has made to these gains and to the overall quality of life. It remains our goal to continue this pursuit.
The science of drug abuse and addiction is moving at a tremendously rapid pace. And we’re coming to understand new insights into how drugs exert their effects, how drugs produce addiction, and then, of course, what to do about it. I’m Dr. Alan Leshner. I’m the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. Neuroscience is the study of all aspects of brain function. And, of course, most people are interested in the brain because they’re interested in their mind, and that’s where your mind is.
Advances in neuroscience are coming at a phenomenal rate. We’ve learned more about the brain in the last ten years than we knew in all of recorded history. One of the things that we’ve learned is that drug use changes the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways that can last long after you stop using drugs. We have new techniques where we can actually look into the brain of living, breathing, awake individuals while they’re having drug experiences. We can use new molecular genetic techniques to analyze what’s happening in the brain, what’s happening in the brain when someone uses drugs, what happens in the brain when you become an addict.
One of the most important things we’ve learned is that addiction is actually a brain disease. The more we understand how nicotine changes activity in the brain by knowing what parts of the brain it causes to light up or what circuits it causes to activate, the better chance we have of developing good medications to cure nicotine or smoking addiction. Sometimes we want to see particular circuits in the brain. And then you need to have a compound that binds to the receptors in that circuit. And actually, one of the things that’s special about this NIDA center is that we have the ability to look at the first good, radioactive, nicotine compound. So, actually, you are seeing some of the first images ever of nicotine binding in the brain, the living, breathing thing. No one ever starts out to become a drug addict. No one wants to be an addict; they just want to try drugs. Then what happens is that they use drugs over time, and it actually changes their brains.
Our mission is to bring the full power of science to bear on drug abuse and addiction, the most dramatic and pervasive social and public health problem facing this country. Because of that, we always keep our focus on solving the problem. One of the nice things is, when you learn about your brain, you’re ultimately learning about your mind. You’re learning about what determines your personality, how you react to the whole world. You’re getting a deeper understanding into the mechanisms that determine who you are.