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Federal Faces: Neil Buckholtz

Name: Neil Buckholtz

Position: Director, Division of Neuroscience, National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health

Best known for: More than 5 million people across the United States and about 30 million worldwide suffer from Alzheimer’s, a devastating disease that attacks the brain and leads to memory loss, the inability to perform daily tasks and functions, and eventually death. Neil Buckholtz has been the driving force at NIH behind an ambitious public-private partnership focused on finding the biological markers that show how Alzheimer’s progresses in the brain, so researchers can more quickly target the testing of new drugs to slow or stop the disease. This multimillion dollar project, started in 2004 and in its second phase, has led to clinical trials at 57 sites in the United States and Canada, and has involved participation of the NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, universities, nonprofit organizations and numerous pharmaceutical, diagnostic and biotechnology companies.

The initiative is unique not just because of its ambitious goals and the broad coalition of participants, but because of the requirement conceived by Buckholtz and colleagues that all of the data and findings be made available in a public database for use by scientists around the world. Unlike most clinical trials, no one owns this data or can submit patent applications, but companies could eventually benefit from any drugs or imaging tests that are developed from use of the information. There are only a handful of medications approved for treatment of Alzheimer’s in the United States, but they do not stop the disease and have only marginal effects on the symptoms. The project, formally known as the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, has led to more than 170 scientific papers, helped develop new insights into people at high risk of progression of Alzheimer’s, and accelerated the testing of new medications. This collaboration also has been a model for biomarker studies in other diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Down syndrome.

Government work: Buckholtz joined the National Institute of Mental Health in 1983 and served as chief of the NIH Dementias of Aging Branch at the National Institute on Aging from 1993 to 2012 before becoming director of its Division of Neuroscience.

Motivation for service: Buckholtz found a home at NIH, where he realized it was possible to have a major impact on neuroscience research nationwide and internationally. “I was able to meet and collaborate with many very bright and interesting scientists, and I found that the depth and level of opportunities to make a difference were limitless. I am motivated by what is going on in science and the chance we have to test and develop new drugs.”

Biggest challenge: For a large portion of his career, Buckholtz said the biggest challenge was finding a balance between family life and the intense demands of work, often forcing him to postpone some travel and collaborative interactions to avoid missing important events of his four children.

Quote: “Alzheimer’s disease is a major public health problem, which will only get much worse if new ways to treat and prevent it are not found. It is critical for the federal government to facilitate the discovery, development and testing of new therapeutics to help people and their families who are desperately in need.”

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