Nation's Top Mental Health Official Headed to Google

Thomas R. Insel, MD, leaves the National Institute of Mental Health after setting in motion a series of projects that will pair personalized medicine with improved detection and prevention of major mental health disorders.

Thomas R. Insel, MD, the neurobiologist who has championed the use of personalized medicine to better diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders, is stepping down after 13 years as director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to join Google’s venture into mental health care.

Insel will join Google Life Sciences’ Alphabet team to lead a new effort “to create technology for earlier detection, better prevention, and more effective management of serious health conditions,” according to a statement from Francis Collins, MD, PhD, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I chose this moment because I wanted to leave at a high point: for the first time in many years we have a complete and completely outstanding leadership team at NIMH, we have excellent engagement from the advocacy community, we have unprecedented support from Congress, and we have an inspiring strategic plan,” Insel said in a statement. “I want to step away at the best of times with all signs pointing to a bright future.”

The move comes as Google is increasingly moving into the healthcare arena, and US research policy is focusing more on the role of genetics in disease. Google was an early investor in the direct-to-consumer personal genomics company, 23andMe.

At NIMH, Insel has spearheaded several projects that seek to explore the genetic underpinnings of mental health problems, with the aim of taking the guesswork out of diagnosis and treatment, and the goal of intervening ahead of first-episode psychosis, perhaps when those at risk are still in their young teens.

One of the signature projects of Insel’s tenure, RAISE (Recovering After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode), was highlighted in a talk this past weekend at the US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress. Joseph P. McEvoy, MD, of Georgia Regents University, said that 10-year results from programs across 5 countries, including the RAISE initiative, show that aggressive interventions work but that they should be continued, not halted after 2 to 3 years.

In his statement, Collins highlighted Insel’s work on the federal advisory committee for autism research and services; his work as co-chair of the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, which set what Collins called “the gold standard” for imaging and data collection; his work as co-chair of the NIH BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnolgoies) program, and work to fund research in molecular libraries, single cell biology, and genotype tissue expression.

In June 2014, Insel gave a major talk at the 167th meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, where he presented the NIMH agenda in genetic research. His optimism in the face of the current grim statistics for those who suffer major mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar I, was apparent as he discussed the talent of the young biologists and engineers working on a longitudinal study that seeks to identify biomarkers for these debilitating diseases.

At the time, Insel said the future of improved mental health care would come from better diagnostics. “We need to develop better diagnostics and disseminate them,” he said. “The path to better mental health services is through science.”