Google lures NIH mental health chief to life sciences team

Dr. Tom Insel

Dr. Tom Insel has stepped down as director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to join the life sciences team at Google ($GOOG). The coup formalizes the expansion of Google's focus into the detection, management and prevention of mental health disorders and gives it access to expertise Insel accrued while spearheading NIH programs such as the BRAIN Initiative. 

Insel has spent most of his working life at NIMH, rising through the ranks from 1980 to 1994 before leaving to lead Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. NIMH lured Insel back in 2002 to serve as its director, a position he held until stepping down this week. The range of initiatives on which Insel has worked during his time as the head of NIMH gives an idea of what Google has gained. Highlights from the past few years of Insel's résumé include having a hand in the creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and President Obama's BRAIN Initiative.

Further back, Insel oversaw the creation of a major repository of autism-related data and a massive study into mental health in the military. A theme running through the projects is a desire to dig into the underlying biology of mental health patients, instead of simply clustering them in groups with similar symptoms. "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," NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins wrote in a letter to break news of Insel's departure.

The BRAIN Initiative and other projects, with their focus on gathering and analyzing large amounts of data, have echoes of how Google approaches its business. NIH even brought Google on board to help with the BRAIN Initiative 11 months ago. The search giant is involved with the development of software and infrastructure to support the management of the petabyte-sized data sets the BRAIN Initiative is expected to generate. Now, the search giant has a growing pool of life science know-how to complement its irrefutable computing chops.

Interest in the potential of this combination has ratcheted up over the past year, culminating in analysts at Cowen tipping life sciences to become Google's next multibillion-dollar business, re/code reports. Whether the mix of life science expertise, IT capabilities and Google's attitude to research can live up to these lofty expectations and deliver products that have a notable effect on healthcare is the big, as-yet-unanswered question hanging over the venture.

- read Insel's note
- here's Collins' letter
- check out Forbes' take
- and re/code's piece

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