Guest Post by Kayt Sukel
In late July, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it had finally completed its nearly year-long search for a new director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., said that the agency had selected Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., currently an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, to take the helm of the $1.5 billion federal agency governing mental health research, replacing former director Thomas Insel. He is expected to start in September.
In the press release announcing the selection, Collins said, “Josh is a visionary psychiatrist and neuroscientist with deep experience in mental health research and practice. He is exceptionally well qualified to lead the NIMH research agenda to improve mental health and treatments for mental illnesses. We’re thrilled to have him join the NIH leadership team.
Gordon, whose research program focused on integrative genetic models of psychiatric disease, spoke with the Dana Foundation about why he wanted to take on this new role in his career, the importance of collaboration and communication, and where he hopes to see the agency go under his leadership.
You’ve had quite a bit of success in academia. Why throw your hat in the ring to lead NIMH?
It’s a really exciting time in psychiatric neuroscience. And such an exciting time comes with a lot of possibilities—but also a lot of responsibilities for the field. In order to pursue those possibilities, with attention to tailoring neuroscience and basic research to really make a difference in people’s lives, requires a lot of thought and planning. So playing a role in how best to do that thought and planning moving forward is an exciting thing to take part in.
Your neuroscientific research has been in genetic models of disease. Do you see genetic research playing a large role as part of that thought and planning as we move forward?
My work is almost post-genetic, in reality. My research has been in animal models that were created based on genetic information from humans—so my work has benefitted from the new opportunities we have to study high-impact, high-prevalence gene mutations. And that’s actually one of the reasons why I started thinking about taking on this kind of role with NIMH. This work has required me to become involved in discussions with other researchers of different disciplines, with the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, and other institutions to try to figure out how we can move from emerging genetics research to neurobiology. It’s a particularly exciting area and we don’t really know the way forward yet.
When Dr. Insel left NIMH, he said that basic science hadn’t been able to “bend the curve” in finding more effective treatments and interventions for mental illnesses. His hope is that data science, mental health apps, and other emerging technologies can assist with that goal. What are your thoughts?
I completely agree. Basic science advances have not yet bent the curve. You look at the data and you see rising rates of suicide, rising rates of disabilities, and other places where we need to see a lot more improvement. I’m optimistic that, in the long run, basic science can and will lead to those improvements. So I believe we need to continue investing in basic science—and I’m sure Tom would agree with that—but I also think there is a lot of promise in clinically relevant solutions that allow us to attack these problems in new ways. And big data and new technologies are certainly one way that will allow us to do that.
That said, I’m not sure what the role of NIMH will be in that yet. But it’s my hope that we can contribute to these areas as well—whether it be big data, modeling, or just rigorous mathematical analysis of new or even our existing treatments. I think it will play a big role in the field of psychiatric neuroscience going forward. And I hope to see an expanded role for the NIMH in that.
What are your plans for communicating with the public and keeping them engaged in what the agency is doing?
This is one area that will offer growth for me. I am, first and foremost, a scientist and while I’ve had opportunities to interact with the public, with consumers, and non-profit agencies, I look forward to learning from more expert voices about the best strategy to do this. I hope to continue Tom Insel’s tradition of having the NIMH Director’s blog. And my guess is that NIMH will have me get on Twitter or something like that. But it’s something I’m looking forward to learning more about as I take on this job.
Since the last director took the helm, the neuroscience landscape has changed dramatically. We now have academia, industry, nonprofit groups, international research consortia, and private research institutions tackling mental health-related research endeavors. How do you see NIMH working with these very different types of organizations to move the needle forward?
This is an important question. I’ve benefitted, my science has benefitted, and my collaborations have benefitted from the existence of all of these types of organizations. Financially, of course, but also in terms of collaboration. I know first hand that we are all after the same goals. And it’s really important to have a variety of diverse approaches when we aren’t sure which approach is going to work the best. I’ve found, at least in my lab, that pooling these different approaches toward problems we face is the best way to do it.
So as NIMH Director, I’d want to know more about what different players in the research sphere have to offer. Obviously, the great strength in NIMH is the portfolio of investigator-driven research. But when you pair that with an Allen Brain Atlas approach, with targeted funding from private foundations, to large global research groups, it’s a really wonderful mix. I look forward, in this role, to trying to help encourage different approaches and more innovative collaborations across these different organizations in the future.
What are your personal goals for this role? What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
In many ways, I don’t have any big preconceived notions about that just yet. What I can say is that I’m excited about the state of neuroscience. I hope that when I leave NIMH, we know more about the brain than when I started. I also hope that we are closer to bringing that brain knowledge to the clinic. I hope that NIMH can play a role in developing tools to help us rigorously evaluate treatments, novel or otherwise, to see how well they work and who they best work for. I’m really excited about taking on this responsibility—and I hope I can do a good job.