Thomas Insel

Thomas Insel

NIH Image Gallery/FLICKR (CC BY 2.0)

How Google lured the nation’s mental health director to leave his job

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), surprised many in the neuroscience community yesterday with the announcement that he will be ending his 13-year tenure in November to join Google’s life sciences team. NIMH’s longest serving director, Insel has been instrumental in bringing the study of mental health firmly within the purview of basic biology, and has often ruffled feathers with his rejection of traditional psychiatric diagnostic categories. ScienceInsider spoke with Insel about his decision. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why the move?

A: I’ve been planning to leave NIMH for about 3 years now—I never intended to stay beyond 10. When the opportunity came up at Google it was very attractive because it is a new venture without a current agenda and without a legacy in this area. It’s an opportunity to start something new and fresh and maybe innovative and hopefully very impactful.

Q: What kinds of projects do you intend to tackle there?

A: It’s still undefined—this will be a decision we’ll make as part of a larger team effort. There are big problems with people with mental illness not coming in for treatment, with people coming in for treatment and getting poor quality care, with follow-through, and making sure that when someone is suicidal that there’s someone available to them when they need it. All of that, you can imagine, could be addressed through technology. [Visiting Google] this summer opened my eyes to what it would mean if, instead of thinking of biomarkers as something we measure in blood or in a brain scan, we also include things we can measure on a smartphone: your activity level, your sleep, your social activity, and your cognitive performance. When I saw that this is the place where you can marry technology to a huge public health need, there was no turning back.

Q: Do you think your time at NIMH was successful? Is there anything left undone?

A: Most of the things on my to-do list are done. Under my tenure we did the first set of effectiveness trials that demonstrated that many of the medications that we have today are not as good as we might have thought. We launched a new effort on the diagnostic side, called the research domain criteria, or RDOC, which has awakened the field to the need to bring biology—and for that matter cognitive science and social science—into the process of diagnosis.

In terms of unfinished business, I had always pledged that I would stay [at NIMH] until people stopped using the term animal models [of psychiatric disease]. I have failed: They still talk about it, they still write about it. As a biologist, I find it deeply wrongheaded, but I’ll have to leave that to my successor.

[In addition], I had pledged that we would reduce the number of deaths from suicide. That hasn’t happened. If anything it’s trending up, not down. NIMH, but also the nation, needs to grapple with the fact that we’re losing more people to suicide than breast cancer. That is a public health catastrophe that we have got to address and I don’t feel that I did that fully. I wish I had more time or had made more progress.

Q: Do you think you’re leaving at a good time for NIMH? Some take issue with your statement that you’re leaving the institution at a “high point.”

A: We’re not at a high point in terms of reducing suicide, reducing morbidity. But I think that in terms of the quality of the science we’re supporting, the culture of the science we’re supporting, we’re in a very good place. On the extramural side, it’s more competitive than ever, it’s more difficult for people to get funded—and that’s been true for a while. But you don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we’re funding 500 grants each year, and that’s a lot of science to support.