Google Poaches Top Neuroscientist To Lead Mental Health Project
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — After visiting Silicon Valley this summer for a tour of tech companies including Apple, Google and IBM, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health is coming back — this time to work here.
Google’s life sciences division, now its own subsidiary of parent company Alphabet, said Tuesday that it has hired Thomas Insel, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who since 2002 has run the branch of the Maryland-based National Institutes of Health that works on understanding and treating mental disorders.
“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,” the company said in a statement. “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.”
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Insel wrote a blog post in late August describing his visits to Silicon Valley tech giants and startups that are working on health ventures, noting that “technology is not the answer to all problems, but it may help those with mental illness even more than those with other chronic, serious medical conditions.” His post gave no hint that he planned on leaving to work for one of the companies he visited.
NIH Director Francis Collins congratulated Insel in a tweet and written statement Tuesday that noted that Insel would be leading a new effort at Google to better detect, prevent and manage “a wide spectrum” of mental health conditions.
With molecular biologist Andy Conrad as its CEO, Alphabet’s as-yet-unnamed life sciences company has said diabetes will be its first major focus, but the hiring of Insel and job postings looking for bioinformatics and computational biology engineers and a wide range of other talent show a much broader mission for the fledgling firm.
Insel is “known for his research into the neurobiology of social behaviors,” and was a pioneer in studying the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in social bonding, according to Collins. Insel’s experience includes directing the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta in the 1990s, and running neuroscience and autism research centers at Emory University. He worked for the nation’s mental health research institute from 1980 to 1994 before returning to lead it in 2002.
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