Dr. Thomas Insel, director for the National Institute of Mental Health, will step down Nov. 1, after serving in that capacity for 13 years.
Insel will join the Google Life Sciences team at Alphabet, formerly Google, to spearhead a new effort focusing on mental health.
Google announced in August that it would launch Life Sciences under the Alphabet umbrella that aims to develop new healthcare technology.
In a blog post on the NIH website, Insel wrote that he was excited about Google's new technologies to transform healthcare. He offered the example of the company's idea to embed a glucose monitor into a contact lens.
"The GLS mission is about creating technology that can help with earlier detection, better prevention, and more effective management of serious health conditions. I am joining the team to explore how this mission can be applied to mental illness," Insel 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. I am looking forward to a 10x challenge in mental health."
Insel is thought of as somewhat of a rebel in his field. A few years ago, he openly questioned the long-term benefits of antipsychotic drugs on people with schizophrenia. He also called psychiatry's diagnostic bible, the D.S.M.-5, “not scientifically valid,” and said the manual was the best “currently available.”
His comments were particularly provocative because he's considered by many to be the government's top brain scientist.
Insel first served the NIMH from 1980 to 1994 in the Division of Intramural Research, and then, in 2002, returned as director. From 1994 to 1999, he was director of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Between NIMH stints, he served as professor of psychiatry at Emory University, where he was the founding director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and director of an NIH-funded Center for Autism Research.
Insel chaired the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which is a federal advisory committee that coordinates autism research and services and was established by Congress.
Insel also co-chaired the Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, which supported the pioneering Human Connectome Project, a project to map the human brain, and the NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies program, which aims to accelerate the development and application of innovative technologies to map brain circuits.
Insel also headed up the Common Fund efforts in Molecular Libraries, Single Cell Biology, and Genotype-Tissue Expression.
Insel has the notable distinction of serving under three presidents and serving simultaneously as the director for two NIH Institutes/Centers, heading up the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at its founding, until a permanent director was appointed.
Bruce Cuthbert will serve as acting director at NIMH while the organization conducts a national search to find Insel's successor.
Google Life Sciences has been active as of late. The company announced Aug. 31 that it is collaborating with Sanofi to improve care and outcomes for people who suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.