Google Life Sciences just hired the government’s top mental illness expert


Thomas Insel

Google’s Life Sciences team is growing quickly, now that it’s part of the Alphabet family.

And today, Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, announced he would be joining the growing ranks.

Insel has served as NIMH’s director for 13 years. He wrote in his statement,

“The [Google Life Sciences] 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. 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.”

This is Google Life Sciences’ first big push into mental illness. The company, led by CEO Andy Conrad, is also exploring treatments for diabetes with its glucose-monitoring technologies in contact lenses. It split into a separate company under the new Alphabet structure, separate from Google X labs where it originally started.

“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 Business Insider in an email. “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.”

About one in five people will experience a mental disorder, such as depression or anxiety, at some point in his or her life. And there’s still a lot that we don’t know about how the brain works, which makes research for diseases related to the brain a slow and difficult process. It doesn’t help that in recent years pharmaceutical companies have been moving away from developing new treatments. The drugs are a risky investment because it’s hard to show that the drugs work much better than placebo medication.

At Google Life Sciences, Insel will be in charge of identifying projects related to mental illness for the company to work on, and then lead those projects.

A trained psychiatrist and neuroscientist, he has also worked to understand the role of genetics in mental illnesses, and focused attention on autism research, according to his NIMH biography. He also pushed for more funding of serious mental disorders, such as schizophrenia.

During his tenure as NIMH director, Insel has led important plans to understand the brain, including the BRAIN initiative, an ongoing public-private research effort launched by President Obama in 2013 with the goal of learning more about how the brain works and developing technologies to treat neurological problems and disease. In an interview at the Smithsonian magazine’s “The Future is Here” festival, Insel said he believes this is the century when the mysteries of the brain may be unraveled.

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