“We are wildly ambitious,” Tom Insel, M.D., says when asked about his plans for Verily Life Sciences, a research organization parented by Google. After 13 years, Insel rocked the world of brain science when he announced plans to step down as director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in late 2015. His departure from NIMH, however, wasn’t a leave from neuroscience research or public health; it was a progressive step towards advancing the technologies that are predicted to transform mental health care.
Recently, Insel was profiled in the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which offers a thorough look at the trajectory that took him from lead role at the world’s largest mental health research institution to complete submersion in the energetic tech bubble of Silicon Valley.
The article recounts Insel’s early work in behavioral research, as well as his influence on the field of antidepressants and NIMH’s involvement in clinical drug trials. Presented with an opportunity to direct a new mental health team under Google, he could now focus on taking applied research and use it to help millions of people globally, who are in need of mental health care. “At any given moment, roughly one in seven of the world’s 7.5 billion people is struggling with mental illness. ‘We’re not going to reach all those people by hiring more psychiatrists,’ says Insel. But we might reach them with smartphones.”
By joining Verily, it reads, Insel could gain access to ongoing streams of data from a smartphone and use it to “detect a deteriorating state of mind faster and more reliably than we can now, and then to respond and turn things around more quickly.” Insel believes a smartphone can have shared roles as a diagnostic instrument and a life-saving mode of treatment.
The same week Insel announced his resignation from NIMH back in 2015, he spoke with the Dana Foundation about what initially drew him into technology and why understanding the brain should be a combined effort from all sectors of health care:
Brain disorders present really complicated problems, and we aren’t going to solve those problems without a big team effort. It’s going to require a village, really. And that includes traditional players like academia, government, and pharmaceutical companies—and the new players in town, the technology companies.
Just two months ago, Insel took another sharp turn and reported that he was leaving Google to co-found Mindstrong Health with technologist Paul Dagum, M.D., Ph.D., and Richard Klausner, former director of the US National Cancer Institute. Though Insel said it was hard to leave, there are now fewer “speed bumps” to go over to get something out the door at the small-scale start-up. Similar to his plan at Verily, Mindstrong will continue pursuing innovations in smartphone health care.
The idea of using smartphones to monitor and track daily behaviors that can be telling of a person’s mental health is being outlined by “a good five or ten other companies,” according to Insel. With a combination of his expertise in the mental health arena, Klausner’s business experience, and Dagum’s skills with data-analysis, Mindstrong is thought to have an advantage.
– Seimi Rurup