By Sarah Zhang
September 15, 2015
THOMAS INSEL IS the longest-serving director of the National Institute of Mental Health since the agency’s founder, which is especially remarkable given how much Insel likes to shake things up. Since 2002, he’s been trying to reshape the understanding of mental illness from inside the walls of academia and the government. So his departure for the the life sciences company within Alphabet (formerly Google), announced today, makes a lot of sense. Insel has been upending mental health research from within; now he might get to disrupt it from without.
As NIMH director, Insel drove researchers to focus on the biological origins of mental illness—the genes and molecules that give rise to a particular set of symptoms. In 2013, on the eve of the latest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, he lambasted the so-called bible of psychiatry for its “lack of validity.” Disorders of the brain—like disorders of the heart or lungs or muscles—need objective laboratory measures to guide diagnosis, not just clusters of symptoms, he wrote on the NIMH’s website. Of course, Insel had his critics, who rightly point out that biological research hasn’t yielded any useful insights into mental illness so far.
Insel’s last day at the NIMH is November 1, and no one’s revealing exactly what he’ll be up to at the life sciences team. A Google spokesperson wrote, “Tom is coming on board to explore how the life sciences team at Google could have an impact on the huge challenges related to understanding, diagnosing, and treating mental illness.” Google certainly has a lot of money and can analyze a lot of data—and maybe with enough of both, you can figure out a thing or two about mental illness.