Changing the World with Smartphones

“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.”

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From the Archives: US Army’s Suicide Risk and Resilience Project

In 2011, we reported on a longitudinal study starting up that aimed to find reliable biomarkers for compromised mental health among army personnel, as the Framingham Heart Study did for heart health. The US Army and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), teamed up to pursue the Army Study To Assess Risk and Resilience in Service members (STARRS).

Historically, the suicide rate among Army personnel has been lower than that of the general population, but starting in 2004, the suicide rate among soldiers began rising, reaching their highest yearly number in 2012.

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Credit: Shutterstock

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NIMH Director Thomas Insel Moves to Google Life Sciences

Guest Post by Kayt Sukel

800px-Thomas_Insel_NIMH_2011Earlier this week, the neuroscience community learned that Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), member of the Dana Alliance’s Executive Committee, and longtime champion of brain research, was leaving his post to take a new position at Google Life Sciences (GLS). Many reacted to Insel’s move with surprise, even shock. How could such an innovative researcher move to the private sector—and to a technology company at that?  But Insel says that technology players are going to play an increasingly important role in our understanding—and management—of mental health disorders. He spoke with the Dana Foundation about why understanding the brain has to be a team effort, the potential power of data analytics, and how all the players can work together to further our goals regarding mental health.

Many were surprised by the news that you are heading to GLS, as opposed to back to academia or to another government position. What drew you to the technology sector?

Insel:  Historically, we’ve seen pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies work in this space. But now, technology companies like IBM, Apple, GE, and Google are coming to the table with their own strengths. And that’s a good thing. The fact is, we’re all focused on the same ultimate goal:  What will it take to make a big difference for people with schizophrenia, autism, depression, Alzheimer’s, and other mental health disorders?  We haven’t been able to bend the curve, so far, with the kind of research we’ve historically done. So it became clear to me that we’re going to have to do something very different to make that difference. I can understand that some people get anxious when they see someone from NIH leave to join a tech company. But I’m excited about going to GLS, a place where they are very interested in trying something very different.

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Tom Insel: Blazing Trails in Science

Dana Alliance member Thomas R. Insel has been a staunch trailblazer in neuroscience and psychiatry with an amazing capacity for doing it with, as a recent New York Times article states, “a reflexively earnest good nature.” As the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the priorities and mission he has developed and continues to develop guide the activities of an influential federal organization that has a large impact on public health and policy.

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Mental Disorders as Brain Disorders

At a recent TEDxCaltech talk, Dana Alliance Executive Committee member Tom Insel, M.D., began by offering some sobering yet motivating statistics:

  • Suicide is the most common cause of death for individuals ages 18 to 25.
  • There are 38,000 suicides every year; one every five minutes.
  • 90 percent of suicides are directly related to brain diseases and disorders.
  • Over the past 30 years, the mortality rates for heart disease, stroke, Leukemia and AIDS have decreased by as much as 80 to 90 percent, while suicide mortality rates remain the same.
  • Neuropsychiatric disorders cause the highest morbidity among all medical causes including 30 percent of all disability, mainly because such conditions affect young individuals who must manage them for a lifetime.

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