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Thomas Insel Returns to NIMH as Director, Nov. 18

By Marilyn Weeks

Dr. Thomas R. Insel will return to NIH on Nov. 18 to become director of the National Institute of Mental Health, where he conducted behavioral and clinical neuroscience research for 15 years. He has been professor, department of psychiatry and director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta since 1994.

Since NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni announced his appointment in mid-September, Insel said, "I have had an opportunity to meet with leaders of academic departments, professional groups and advocacy organizations. The messages I am hearing from these different constituents are surprisingly similar: People are generally excited about mental health research and enthusiastic about current treatments for mental disorders, but there is widespread concern about the persistent stigma surrounding mental illness and its treatment."

Dr. Thomas Insel
While Insel views this stigma as a "high hurdle," he expressed hope that it can be reduced if "we can continue to support breakthrough scientific research and to build on our most effective treatments. We must work not only with the research, treatment and advocacy communities, but also with other NIH institutes, other government departments and the media."

Insel, who first joined NIMH in 1979 as a clinical associate in the Clinical Neuropharmacology Branch, outlined what he calls ambitious goals including: discovering vulnerability genes and diagnostic biomarkers for the major mental disorders; reducing suicide, which is globally responsible for as many deaths as war and homicide combined; reducing HIV transmission; and developing new strategies for the prevention of mental disorders.

"To accomplish this, we must move to the next level in our key areas of basic neuroscience, translational research, clinical research and studies of mental health services," he said. "The needs are great — an estimated 44 million Americans suffer with a diagnosable mental disorder each year, including nearly 1 in 5 children, causing significant morbidity and mortality."

Insel will oversee NIMH's $1.3 billion research budget that provides support to investigators at universities throughout the country and funds an in-house research program in Bethesda.

After joining NIMH, Insel went on to hold several administrative and leadership posts. During his 15 years at NIMH before heading to Emory in 1994, he conducted research in obsessive-compulsive disorder, initiating some of the first treatment trials for OCD using serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Five years later, Insel launched a research program in social neuroscience, focusing on the neurobiology of complex social behaviors in animals. Using molecular, cellular and pharmacological approaches, his laboratory has demonstrated the importance of the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin in maternal behavior, pair bond formation and aggression.

Insel graduated from the combined B.A.-M.D. program at Boston University. He did his internship at Berkshire Medical Center, Pittsfield, Mass., and his residency at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. He joined NIMH and served in various scientific research positions until 1994, when he went to Emory as professor, department of psychiatry, and director of the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. As director of Yerkes, Insel helped to build one of the nation's leading HIV vaccine research programs. He currently serves as founding director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, a science and technology center funded by the National Science Foundation. The center has developed an interdisciplinary consortium for research and education at eight Atlanta colleges and universities. Insel's research continues to study the role of oxytocin in social attachment and behavior, and under an NIMH grant, he directs the development of an autism research center.

Insel serves on numerous academic, scientific and professional committees including 10 editorial boards. He is a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology and has received awards from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Society for Biological Psychiatry and the Public Health Service.

"I am both honored and excited to be joining the NIH at this time; Dr. Steve Hyman is a hard act to follow," Insel said, referring to his predecessor. Hyman left NIMH in December 2001 to become provost at Harvard University. Insel said that Dr. Richard Nakamura, who has served as acting director during the interim, would continue to help guide NIMH.

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