The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR), established under a provision of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act of 1993, began its work with an ambitious mission: to conduct and support research and training related to sleep disorders, coordinate sleep and circadian activities across NIH and the federal government, and educate the research community and the public about this work. This 2021 NIH Sleep Research Plan showcases the vigorous efforts the NCSDR is making to honor that mandate.
Landmark scientific discoveries have shown how significant sleep and circadian biology is to human health and disease and how sleep deficiencies may differ across populations. As this research progresses, the evidence that sleep is a nonnegotiable biological requirement for overall mental and physical health and wellness is becoming even more clear. The growth of sleep and circadian research in traditional areas such as genetics and neuroscience, the emerging research on sleep health disparities, and the need to explore sleep health across the lifespan of women all underscore how much more there is to learn. The recognition and subsequent integration of sleep and circadian biology across NIH research domains remains an important goal.
In this 2021 NIH Sleep Research Plan, exciting opportunities have been identified to advance the research in these fields. It has done this through a transparent and iterative process, with input from the Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board, the NIH Sleep Research Coordinating Committee, patient advocates, academic leaders, and health care providers. Key features of the plan focus on elucidating sleep and circadian mechanisms that underlie health and disease, accelerating implementation research, and understanding the role of sleep in health disparities.
The plan also promotes fostering a strong and diverse scientific workforce. This aim is reinforced by the recently launched NIH UNITE initiative, which was established to identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and the greater scientific community.
Progress in sleep and circadian research is a continually evolving process that involves consistent engagement and communication with key stakeholders in order to maximize advancements. The research activities presented in 2021 NIH Sleep Research Plan will not only enhance sleep and circadian biology research, but potentially transform medicine and public health. Implementation of the advancements made in these fields could greatly advance the public’s health and well-being, and this plan offers important strategies and ideas to achieve these goals.
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
National Institutes of Health
It is with great pleasure that the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR), the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the NIH Sleep Research Coordinating Committee (SRCC), present the 2021 NIH Sleep Research Plan. This plan builds on the growth of sleep and circadian biology research over the past decade and highlights critical research needs and opportunities for the coming years.
The process of updating the 2021 NIH Sleep Research Plan started with the release of a Request for Information (RFI) from the NIH. The RFI invited ideas for cutting edge sleep and circadian-related research that could have the highest impact on biomedical sciences and on public health. It also sought information about impediments that could slow or upend such advances. This plan represents thoughtful input from the public and scientific communities, guidance from the Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board, coordination across the SRCC, and feedback from NIH leadership.
Sleep and circadian biology research holds much promise for the health, safety, and well-being of the nation. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which recognized the discovery of molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythms, ignited greater interest in the interactions between biological rhythms and drugs. In doing so, it offered hope that we could one day answer many intriguing and important questions, such as what time of day is best for administering therapies and interventions like vaccines, anti-hypertensives, and certain chemotherapies.
Harnessing this emerging knowledge could inspire other transformative discoveries – for example, biomarkers that accurately and objectively indicate sleep and circadian disorders or sleep deficiency. Such findings could lead to improvements in the lives of people with chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, dementia, and certain cancers. Consider the possibilities: cost-effective, sleep and circadian-based interventions that have the potential to impact a wide range of suboptimal health outcomes that have been associated with sleep deficiency.
Fostering an appreciation of cultural differences that contribute to disparities in sleep health presents a path forward that may help eliminate health inequities. A more in-depth understanding of the mechanisms and causal pathways that account for sleep health disparities, as well as exploring the contributions of sex and/or gender influences on sleep, could ultimately inform public health policies.
It has been 28 years since federal legislation created the NCSDR to support research, disseminate health information, and coordinate sleep and circadian research activities across the NIH and the government. In collaboration with our federal partners and public stakeholders, NCSDR will continue to facilitate the research that addresses the needs and opportunities presented in the revised plan. As always, we will do this with our eyes on one prize: to advance sleep and circadian research that improves medicine, public health, and the safety of the American public. We hope you join us in our efforts.
Marishka K. Brown, Ph.D.
Director, National Center for Sleep Disorders Research
National Institutes of Health