NIMH Director Thomas Insel Moves to Google Life Sciences

Kayt Sukel
September 17, 2015
Thomas R. Insel, M.D.

Earlier 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.

What are those strengths?

Data analytics: That’s really Google’s sweet spot. It’s what they do; they have a lot of strength in that area. But that’s not something that National Institutes of Health has been so good at. But it’s a great new direction to help our understanding of mental health and the deep study of behavior. I spent most of my tenure at NIMH doing brain research, funding studies on brain imaging, brain biology, and brain development. But with Google, there’s an opportunity to develop analytical tools that help us objectively study disease-related behaviors. Recent studies suggest that you can use algorithms to map language in such a way to predict psychosis and even Alzheimer’s disease, long before you can subjectively observe it. I see data analytics being a way to get us new information in a way that we haven’t been able to do before.

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.

What part might nonprofit organizations play in this team effort?

When I started at NIH, we had Lilly, Pfizer, J&J and a few other companies making investments in mental research. But that was it. Now we have many different organizations who are interested in mental health. We’ve got the Stanley Center, the $650 million center at MIT, the Allen Institute, which has spent $300 million with their new brain initiative, the Howard Hughes Janelia Farm, which focuses on the nervous system, and so many other organizations investing significant resources into our understanding of brain function. And it’s really exciting, because it says our quest to understand how the brain works is going to have a lot of players working on it.

Some will use the traditional NIH model of letting 1000 flowers bloom and see what grows well. They’ll do a bottom-up approach to try to understand brain function, and involve engineers, neuroscientists, material scientists to make some really cool tools and see where it takes us. Others will take it on like a Manhattan Project and focus on a specific part of the brain or specific function, more of a top-down approach. It’s cool because I think we need both. And it’s going to be interesting to see how all that work, and all those approaches, come together.

Moving forward, how can government, academia, nonprofits, and industry best support each other as they all work to solve the complicated questions underlying brain function and mental health disorders?

We’ve had some experiments in this that worked well. And, certainly, we’ve done this a bit already with the ADNI project for Alzheimer’s disease. This is a big Alzheimer’s project that has both public and private efforts. Europe has been very successful with the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) in bringing the public and private sectors together.

We now have enough experience to say that this actually works, all these players can work together. But it only works if everyone is an equal partner, if everyone’s involved from the get-go, and if you bring the best ideas to the table. We’ve got some great models to follow. But I think, to work, it’s got to be an area that’s pre-competitive. So perhaps finding a biomarker for autism or schizophrenia. It’s a goal where everyone can win. So if you identify and define the goal very carefully, and make sure everyone works in equal partnership, you can get to the end game. It’s worked really well so far for Alzheimer’s, and I think it’ll work for autism and schizophrenia.

It’s an exciting time for mental health. There is a lot of opportunity and a lot to learn. But it’s still early days. I’m very excited to see how far, with all these players working together, we can take it.