NIH HEAL Initiative Research: Making a Difference

NIH HEAL Initiative: Making a Difference with HEAL Helping to End Addiction Long-term logo

The NIH HEAL Initiative® is a research effort that combines the power of science and community to address the evolving public health challenge of poorly treated pain, opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose. 

HEAL-funded research is making a difference in the lives of individuals and communities across America. This important work relies on strong partnerships with federal agencies, the private sector, research institutions, and communities.  

We are all working together to help end addiction long-term: the vision for the NIH HEAL Initiative.

Download a PDF of the NIH HEAL Initiative: Making A Difference e-Pub.

A lab technician is using a microscope to examine an unknown specimen

Featured HEAL Research: Better Ways to Model Pain in the Lab

The Problem: To learn about what causes pain in the body, scientists need better ways to model pain in the lab. Often, researchers model pain in the lab by studying cells in a dish. Even though scientists know that several different types of cells in the brain are involved in pain, most cell models in the lab focus on the role of only one cell type: neurons.

New Finding: HEAL researchers have created a new way to model pain in the lab that uses both neurons and another type of brain cell called astrocytes. Because the new model uses more than one type of cell, it is more similar to how pain really works in the body. If scientists use the new model to test pain therapies, there is a better chance that the therapies will work in the human body.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Pain Care? Testing pain medications in cell models could help researchers create powerful, non-addictive treatments for chronic pain.

A cross section of the brain highlighting different areas of the brain.

HEAL research: Researchers identify individual chronic pain signatures in the brain

The Problem: For the millions of Americans living with chronic pain, the experience is unique in every individual. Currently available treatments do not provide adequate relief, and new non-addictive and effective medications are desperately needed. The development of new medications for pain has significantly declined over the past decade. A major hurdle is the ability to accurately measure chronic pain, in order to test new treatments.

New Finding: For the first time, HEAL-funded researchers measured pain-related brain activity in real time from inside the brains of people with chronic pain disorders caused by stroke or amputation. The scientists measured pain signals in regions of the brain associated with pain perception as well as the emotional response to pain.

Imagine the Future: Chronic pain signatures that measure pain episodes in indviduals in real time lead to personalized approaches to effective, non-addictive pain management.

mother snuggling a newborn to her face

HEAL research: Healthy developmental paths for babies exposed to opioids

The Problem: In the United States, an infant is diagnosed with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) about every half hour. NOWS symptoms typically appear in the first few days of life and include irritability, tremors, poor sleeping, and difficulty feeding – and babies can be hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit for several days to weeks.

New Finding: HEAL researchers through the Advancing Clinical Trials in Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal (ACT NOW) program show that using the Eat, Sleep, Console (ESC) care approach can cut hospital stays for babies experiencing withdrawal symptoms and reduce their need to receive medication as part of their treatment.

Imagine the Future: Infants exposed to opioids during pregnancy have a healthy developmental path to childhood and beyond.

Doctors wheel a patient in a hospital bed through a hallway. The image is blurred to indicate motion.

HEAL research: Buprenorphine in the emergency department is safe and effective in the era of fentanyl

The Problem: Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have created a deadly landscape for people who use drugs. Clinical guidelines that recommend emergency department-administered buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder are underused in part because providers fear it will cause the rapid and marked onset of painful withdrawal symptoms after the first dose of buprenorphine.

New Finding: HEAL-funded research through the National Institute on Drug Abuse now shows that only a fraction of people with opioid use disorder whose drug use includes fentanyl (under 1%) experienced withdrawal after being prescribed buprenorphine in the emergency department. The findings are a key step toward affirming the safety and effectiveness of emergency department-administered buprenorphine that includes screening, treatment, referral, and follow-up.

Imagine the Future: Emergency departments across America routinely provide life-saving medication and resources for people at risk for overdose.

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