U.S. mental health institute puts champion of basic science at the helm

The clinical center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

NIH

U.S. mental health institute puts champion of basic science at the helm

Up to now, Joshua Gordon has split his career between working with patients with mental illness and mice designed to mimic that illness. But this fall, the neuroscientist and psychiatrist will take control of the $1.5 billion U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Maryland, the agency announced yesterday

Gordon, who treats patients at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in New York City, is best known for developing mouse models that mirror aspects of anxiety and schizophrenia. His lab at Columbia University Medical Center has recreated cognitive deficits seen in schizophrenia by blocking the activity of neurons in mouse brains, for example, and developed a mouse model of the genetic disorder 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, which predisposes humans to psychosis.

“Josh is certainly coming from a basic science side,” says Carrie Bearden, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies people with the syndrome. “He really cares about taking the findings in the animal models and looking how it’s really convergent with patient findings.”

Joshua Gordon

Joshua Gordon

NIH

Gordon will take the helm of NIMH, a part of the National Institutes of Health, in September, a full year after former Director Thomas Insel surprised the community with his decision to join Google’s life sciences team. Insel was known for his emphasis on the biology underling psychiatric illness—an approach many expect Gordon to embrace.

“I think this very much continues in that tradition,” says Eric Morrow, a developmental neurobiologist and psychiatrist at Brown University. “The field has to bridge some pretty big gaps,” he says, “So it’s fantastic to have somebody who sort of understands broadly how to go from gene to behavior.”

On Insel’s watch, the institute launched a new framework for diagnosing psychiatric illness, called the research domain criteria (RDOC), which scraps traditional disease categories based on clinical symptoms to search for new categories grounded in brain biology. Not being a clinical researcher, Gordon says he hasn’t paid much attention to the RDOC yet, but sees diagnosis as a critical issue, and plans to evaluate whether new diagnostic approaches, including RDOC, are effective.

“I want to learn for myself before I decide where I’d like to see things move forward,” he told ScienceInsider. “Of course, in reality, being NIMH director is like herding a bunch of really brilliant cats, so I think the field moves forward without a whole lot of direction sometimes, and that’s probably a good thing.”