Why America’s Top Mental Health Researcher Joined Alphabet
It bothered Thomas Insel, who has been head of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, since 2002, that unlike AIDS or lymphoma, mental illness is still diagnosed on the basis of clusters of symptoms rather than “any objective laboratory measure” such as a biomarker.
In fact, biological science hasn’t had that many successes against depression or schizophrenia, despite the NIMH’s $1.5 billion a year in grants and research spending. Psychiatric drugs haven’t improved much in recent decades, and searches for the genetic causes of common forms of mental illness haven’t yielded clear answers either.
Such scientific frustrations may explain why Insel last week said he was jumping ship to join a subsidiary of Alphabet, the tech conglomerate formed in the restructuring of Google. Alphabet’s Life Sciences unit is already exploring smart contact lenses, genomics, and cancer detection.
Insel notes the obvious: wealthy tech companies have realized that health care is a bigger business than software and gadgets (it’s about 20 percent of the U.S. GDP), and so it’s one they should get into. But he says he also became convinced that a tech approach might be well suited to mental illness, thanks to the “big data” being generated by genomics and medical imaging as well as the promise that personal technology could make health care “patient-centric” and continuous instead of focused on occasional doctor’s visits.
“In the future, when we think of the private sector and health research, we may be thinking of Apple and IBM more than Lilly and Pfizer,” Insel says. He’s not envisioning yet another app for managing diabetes or heart disease. Rather, he thinks smartphones could collect biomarkers of depression or psychosis via speech patterns, and dole out psychiatric interventions as well.
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