Departing NIMH director says move to Google Life Sciences spurred by need for technology to have "disruptive impact" in healthcare

October 8, 2015
Ref: The Washington Post

Thomas Insel, director of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), who will step down next month to join the Google Life Sciences group under Alphabet, suggested that technology "still really has not had the impact one might expect in healthcare," reported The Washington Post on Thursday. Insel, who will explore how Google's technological expertise can be applied to mental-health issues, remarked that "if there is one area that is both in need of a disruptive impact, as well as where the potential for having a very significant impact might be made, it is with healthcare, maybe mental-health care, because of the particular nature of both our diagnostics and our therapeutics."

The director pointed to results from a recent study indicating that the average duration of untreated psychosis was 74 weeks, saying that in these cases, "one way to make a difference is to ensure that we detect psychosis early and treat the first episode quickly and comprehensively." He added "we should take a page from our approach to heart disease, by identifying who is at highest risk and developing interventions that pre-empt psychosis."

Insel suggested that by using existing cellphone and Internet technologies "we may be able to get much more information about behaviour than what we've been able to use in making a diagnosis." While his move to Google Life Sciences does not necessarily represent a shift away from direct basic science research in favour of wearable technology, Insel said "we've already invested heavily in the technologies of genomics and imaging…what we haven't done as well is to create the next generation of technologies for tracking behaviour and, in particular, behavioural change."

Commenting on the reaction to the NIMH's Research Domain Criteria initiative, which provides a framework on how to study mental illness based more on genomics and brain biology, as well as to the agency's shift toward work around biological tests for mental illness, Insel said "most scientists understand that if we're going to make progress in this field, we have to get far more precise diagnostic terms." In addition to biology, he suggested "we have to bring in lots of different levels of information," including social determinants and aspects of cognition. "There's just a whole series of all kinds of data that we don't take into account now when we put a label on somebody like major depressive disorder," he said.