By LYNNE JETER
From preparing the next generation of scientists, to sharing how primary care doctors can improve care for neurological disorders, to addressing disparities in the field, Brenda Orffer provides insight into pressing national issues facing academic neurologists and neuroscientists.
Earlier this year, Orffer, CAE, was named CEO of the American Neurological Association (ANA), a national professional organization representing leading academic neurologists and neuroscientists.
What are the top issues going into 2023, legislatively and otherwise?
Continued funding and support for research and development and treatment of neurological disorders remains a priority. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)’ September Legislative Update provides a good overview of legislation focused on neurological disorders and funding for critical research.
Considering the immense burden of neurological disease on Americans, it’s critical that Congress and state legislators ensure those suffering with neurological disease have access and ability to pay for necessary treatment and care, a sustainable system of healthcare delivery, and well-resourced research, clinical trials, and other investigative science to identify optimal treatments and potentially cures.
In addition to legislative work, it’s important that academic neurologists have the resources necessary to continue to engage in cutting-edge research, test emerging treatments, and invest in future leaders through teaching, mentoring, and professionally developing the early-career scientists and students who are the future of neurology and neuroscience. Academic neurologists are the first to implement new treatments and deploy new technologies in the treatment of neurological diseases, and we need their work now more than ever.
The ANA recently held its Annual Meeting in Chicago. What new information or trends in neurology emerged from the meeting that excites you?
There was such a rich array of cutting-edge research presented during ANA 2022 that it’s hard to narrow it down to a few, but there were a couple that truly stand out. In the presidential symposium on “Neurologic Dark Matter: Exploring the Exposome that Drives Neurological Disorders,” speakers discussed the sheer volume of chemical exposures affecting the public and presented evidence linking Parkinson’s disease and
ALS with environmental exposures. In “Advancing Neurologic Equity: Challenges and Paths Forward,” speakers spotlighted neurologic health inequities—from the effects of multiple sclerosis and disproportionate impacts of Alzheimer’s among black and Latino populations to inadequacies in neurologic healthcare affecting LGBTQ communities. Both symposia are examples of the innovative and groundbreaking research that’s providing new insights and avenues for reducing the burden of neurological diseases.
How is the ANA working to foster the development of young scientists in the field?
The ANA is passionate about helping junior and early-career academic neurologists and neuroscientists build their professional skills and find community and support. Over the past several years, Nadine Goldberg, PhD, led the organization to develop focused educational programs, opportunities to present research and discovery, and ways to connect to peers and mentors who will inspire our early-career members and invest in their professional growth. We’re continually working with this cohort on initiatives that address their needs. So far that work has been successful: at the 2022 ANA annual meeting, 71 percent of registered attendees were junior or early-career academic neurologists/neuroscientists, ranging from students and trainees to assistant professors/instructors. Our annual meeting includes a Junior & Early Career Members networking event and educational sessions tailored to the early stages of professional development.
The ANA is also committed to developing junior and early-career academic neurologists and neuroscientists across the globe. The recent annual meeting included early-career neurology and neuroscience experts from Sub-Saharan Africa who shared insights on the challenges faced in other countries, work and research being done, and how they collaborate with their counterparts in the U.S. to improve neurologic care globally.
The ANA also creates opportunities for junior and early-career academic neurologists through awards and scholarships, including the Derek Denny-Brown Young Neurological Scholar Award, the ANA-Persyst IDEAS Professional Development Award, and the The Grass Foundation - ANA Award in Neuroscience, along with travel and poster awards.
Our former executive director and current Chief Program Officer, Nadine Goldberg, was and is a driving force behind so many of these initiatives, along with much of our other work including our Annual Meeting and educational programs. We continue to work together to expand the capacity of the ANA to address the needs of early-career and under-represented physicians.
What should doctors look out for, and how can they better help patients with neurological issues?
Recent research has revealed environmental contaminants are emerging as a major public health and health equity issue. Pollutants, chemical additives, pesticides, heavy metals, and the like—the exposures collectively known as our “exposome”—are directly affecting the brain and its function and increase the risk for diseases including dementia, Parkinson’s, ALS, and peripheral nerve disease. In addition, studies on healthcare inequities are beginning to reveal the vast differences in outcomes for individuals marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental disability, and other social or structural disadvantages. One of the most important things doctors can do to better help patients with neurological issues is to consider the whole patient and their environment, taking a person-centered approach to diagnosis and treatment.
What is the ANA currently doing to address disparities within the field of neurology?
The ANA and the field of academic neurology/neuroscience are responding to the urgent need to encourage equity and inclusion and confront systemic discrimination to improve neurologic care and research for all. Through the exceptional leadership of our past President Dr. Justin McArthur, current President Dr. Frances Jensen, and Drs. Allison Willis and Lesli Skolarus (the heads of our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Social Justice–IDEAS–Task Force), the ANA has implemented several initiatives to address diversity, equity and inclusion within the field of neurology and neuroscience and within the association.
These initiatives began with establishing a Task Force and listening tour and have led to a social justice symposia and webinars, editorial content in the Annals of Neurology, lectureships and awards to address issues of disparities, and supporting the creation of a neurology department at Morehouse College School of Medicine. We’re constantly listening and working to shift the tide towards greater equity in neurologic care and research, in the field at large, and in the way the ANA operates. You can learn more on our website, myana.org.
Brenda Orffer, CAE, Chief Executive Officer, American Neurological Association, is responsible for overall operations of the ANA, including governance, budgeting, and financial oversight. She comes to the ANA from the Washington Health Care Association, where she served as executive vice president of the statewide nonprofit organization representing more than 500 assisted living and skilled nursing facilities.
A graduate of Kent Christian College with a bachelor’s degree in theology, Orffer also served as mayor of the City of McCleary, Washington, and as a member of its city council. She currently volunteers as a member of the quality improvement committee at Summit Pacific Medical Center, giving her a perspective on the work that community hospitals do to improve the patient experience and clinical outcomes.