Google broadens life sciences with mental health hire

Google has recruited the director of the US National Institute of Mental Health to expand the scope of its life sciences division.

Google has hired the director of the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to broaden the scope of its life sciences projects.

The life sciences division at Google is already working on diabetes, genomics, and slowing down ageing. With the appointment of Dr. Thomas Insel, the director of NIMH since 2002, it now plans to tackle mental health too.

According to NIMH, in 2013 it was estimated that 18.5 percent of all US adults were suffering from a mental illness, ranging from substance-use disorders to mental, behavioural, or emotional disorders. Despite the prevalence of mental health problems, only about half of those affected receive treatment.

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Insel on Tuesday announced plans to join Google's life sciences team to make contributions on the mental illness front and to help the company reach its goal of developing technology to solve medical conditions, such as its recent work on an embedded glucose monitor for diabetics.

"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," wrote Insel.

"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," he added.

"The Google philosophy has been to seek a 10x impact on hard problems. I am looking forward to a 10x challenge in mental health."

According to Buzzfeed, which first reported the move, Insel will join Alphabet and its subsidiary Google X in November. Google said in a statement to the publication that Insel will help the life sciences team discover how it could have an impact in understanding, diagnosing, and treating mental illness.

At a TED talk in 2013, Insel highlighted that mental illness often remains untreated until behavioural disorders emerge and by then the time for early detection has already passed. He pointed to the Human Connectome project as a possible answer, which focuses on mapping the circuitry of the brain and suggests that some mental illnesses may involve a circuit disorder.

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