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Google's Scientists Are Taking On A New Challenge: Mental Health

Google's spun-out life sciences division under Alphabet just hired one of the nation's leading neuroscientists and psychiatrists.

Posted on September 15, 2015, at 2:51 p.m. ET

Cliff Owen / AP

Google's newly spun-out life sciences division is beefing up its roster and expanding into mental health. Dr. Thomas Insel said Tuesday he will step down from his post as director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the behavioral health arm of the National Institutes of Health, to join Alphabet, and its subsidiary Google X, in November.

The neuroscientist and psychiatrist has led the NIMH since 2002, making him the agency's longest-serving director since its founder left, and he wrote in a prepared statement that he wanted to leave at a "high point."

Google's life sciences projects have so far tackled diabetes, genomics, and anti-aging (in the form of its subsidiary, Calico) — but not mental health. In his statement, Insel said that he would help pioneer efforts in that area. He wrote, "That the life sciences team at Google would establish a major exploration into mental health is by itself a significant statement — recognizing the burden of illness from psychosis, mood disorders, and autism as well as the opportunity for technology to make a major impact to change the world for the millions affected."

"The Google philosophy has been to seek a 10x impact on hard problems," Insel added. "I am looking forward to a 10x challenge in mental health."

Insel will decide which mental health projects to pursue, and then lead them. "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," a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "We're thrilled that he's joining the team and look forward to sharing more once he has a chance to get up and running."

The move is a notable change of pace for Insel, who has spent his whole career in government and academia. Before joining the NIMH, he was a professor of psychiatry at Emory University, where he became best known for his research on how certain hormones play roles in how we forge social bonds. He is the author of more than 250 papers and four books.

At the NIMH, Insel at times challenged conventional wisdom by questioning whether people with schizophrenia should remain on antipsychotic medications for their whole lives. He also noted what he saw as imperfections in the DSM-5, the manual that sets definitions and diagnoses for psychological disorders.

Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH director, commended Insel. "Under Tom's leadership, the NIMH has nurtured a culture of science that puts the needs of patients with serious mental illness at the center of its efforts," Collins wrote in a statement.

Collins said that Bruce Cuthbert would be named acting director. Cuthbert formerly led the Division of Adult Translational Research from 2009 to 2014.

Here's a TED Talk from Insel, "Toward a New Understanding of Mental Illness":

View this video on YouTube

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.