Top Health Research Findings 2023

February 2, 2024 at 9:50 a.m.

With support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), scientists across the United States and around the world conduct wide-ranging research to discover ways to enhance health, lengthen life and reduce illness and disability.
Groundbreaking NIH-funded research often receives top scientific honors. In 2023, these honors included two NIH-supported scientists who received Nobel Prizes. Here’s just a small sample of the NIH-supported research accomplishments in 2023.

Human Health Advances: Disease Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment

Blood test for early Alzheimer’s detection: One of the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease involves the formation of toxic aggregates of a protein called amyloid beta (Aβ). The ability to detect these early would let scientists test new treatments before irreparable brain damage occurs. Researchers developed a blood test that could detect the toxic Aβ aggregates before Alzheimer’s symptoms appeared. This is one of several promising approaches to early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Bivalent vaccines provide better protection against severe COVID-19: The original COVID-19 vaccines saved many lives. As later variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged, updated vaccines were released in September 2022. These bivalent vaccines targeted both the original strain and the Omicron variant. Researchers showed that these updated vaccines were significantly more effective at reducing the risk of serious disease. They improved protection regardless of a person’s age or whether they had already received different boosters.

Hearing aids slow cognitive decline in people at high risk: As the world population ages, there’s a need for safe and affordable ways to prevent or slow cognitive decline. Among older adults with hearing loss who were at increased risk for dementia, researchers found that those who received hearing aids had nearly half the rate of cognitive decline over a three-year period. Treating hearing loss could be a safe way to lower the risk of dementia in vulnerable people.

An mRNA vaccine to treat pancreatic cancer: Scientists developed a method for creating personalized mRNA vaccines to treat a deadly type of pancreatic cancer. In a small study, 18 patients had pancreatic tumors removed and analyzed to identify proteins that could provoke an immune response. Each then received personalized vaccines that targeted their proteins. The vaccines triggered a strong anti-tumor immune response in half the participants. Over a year later, their cancers hadn’t returned.

Immune boost may protect against multiple hospital-acquired infections: Traditional vaccines train the body to recognize a specific microbe. Researchers designed a novel type of vaccine that stimulated the innate immune system, the body's first line of defense against infection. The vaccine provided protection for mice against a wide range of bacteria and fungi. If effective in people, the approach could help prevent deaths from hospital-acquired infections.

How psychedelic drugs may help with depression: Some psychedelic drugs are being tested as therapies for certain mental illnesses. These drugs work by binding receptors that promote plasticity—the brain's ability to form new connections. Researchers found that these compounds needed to cross nerve cell membranes to activate receptors inside cells. Activating the same receptors on the cell surface did not promote plasticity. The findings could lead to drugs that encourage brain plasticity without hallucinogenic effects.

Promising Medical Findings - Results with Potential for Enhancing Human Health Immune and hormonal features of Long COVID: About one in eight people who survive an acute SARS-CoV-2 infection go on to have persistent symptoms. The processes that give rise to this syndrome, known as Long COVID, remain unclear. Researchers found several immune and hormonal differences between people with Long COVID and those without. Another study found that infection with a common cold virus may predispose some people to develop Long COVID. This year, researchers also discovered how COVID-19 may damage cells’ energy production and potentially cause some symptoms of Long COVID.

Protein may be linked to exercise intolerance in ME/CFS: People with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) live with debilitating symptoms. These including exhaustion, exercise intolerance, cognitive problems and worsening of symptoms after even mild exertion. A study suggested that high levels of a protein called WASF3 may reduce energy production in the muscle cells of people with ME/CFS. Blocking this protein in cells in the laboratory restored energy production, suggesting a potential new strategy for treating the condition.

Engineering skin grafts for complex body parts: Advances in bioengineering have allowed researchers to grow new patches of skin in the lab. But these skin patches have been small and limited in shape. Using new techniques, scientists grew strong skin in the shape of a full human hand. This technology has the potential to help heal burns and other damage to complex body parts with less trauma and scarring.

Erythritol and cardiovascular events: Artificial sweeteners can help people reduce their sugar and calorie intake. But little is known about the long-term health consequences. Researchers found that elevated blood levels of the artificial sweetener erythritol were associated with increased risk of heart attack and stroke. When used as a sweetener, erythritol is typically added at levels more than 1,000-fold higher than those found naturally in foods. The results highlight the need to further study erythritol’s long-term effects on cardiovascular health.

Scientists build largest maps to date of cells in human brain: An international network of researchers created detailed cellular maps of human and nonhuman animal brains. The scientists created the most detailed cell atlas yet of the adult human brain. They also compared human and nonhuman primate brains and found gene activity patterns that were unique to humans. These and other findings could lead to future advances for a host of mental conditions and brain disorders.

Gut microbes may affect motivation to exercise: Researchers found that gut microbes can affect levels of exercise in mice. Depleting the gut microbiome stopped dopamine increases in mice brains after exercise. It also caused the mice to exercise less and get exhausted more easily. Further experiments revealed how the gut microbes raise dopamine levels in the brain. The findings, if confirmed in humans, suggest strategies that might help encourage people to exercise.

Additional top health stories from 2023:

-- Leqembi is the first drug that has been fully approved by the FDA to treat Alzheimer's disease has been released. The pricing remains high putting the drug out of reach for some that need it.
-- There are now vaccines and antibody shots available to prevent the respiratory virus, RSV, which can present serious complications for older adults and babies.
-- The gene editing method, known as CRISPR, has now been used in treatment for the first time, in this case, for sickle cell disease.
-- ChatGPT, the chat-based Artificial Intelligence program has entered medicine. Artificial Intelligence has already been used to diagnose medical conditions include breast cancer and it is even being looked at as a tool for therapy. Experts urge caution.
-- The first face and eye transplant was completed.


For more information about the health and medical research findings from NIH, visit
Share this story!