US Mental-Health Chief: Psychiatry Must Get Serious About Mathematics

Joshua Gordon says that his focus at the National Institute of Mental Health will be on quick wins, brain circuits and mathematical rigour.

By Alison Abbott

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The US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has a new director. On 12 September, psychiatrist Joshua Gordon took the reins at the institute, which has a budget of US$1.5 billion. He previously researched how genes predispose people to psychiatric illnesses by acting on neural circuits, at Columbia University in New York City. His predecessor, Thomas Insel, left the NIMH to join Verily Life Sciences, a start-up owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, in 2015. Gordon says that his priorities at the NIMH will include “low-hanging clinical fruit, neural circuits and mathematics — lots of mathematics”, and explains to Nature exactly what that means.

What do you plan to achieve in your first year in office?

I won’t be doing anything radical. I am just going to listen to and learn from all the stakeholders — the scientific community, the public, consumer advocacy groups and other government offices.

But I can say two general things. In the past twenty years, my two predecessors, Steve Hyman [now director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts] and Tom Insel, embedded into the NIMH the idea that psychiatric disorders are disorders of the brain, and to make progress in treating them we really have to understand the brain. I will absolutely continue this legacy. This does not mean we are ignoring the important roles of the environment and social interactions in mental health — we know they have a fundamental impact. But that impact is on the brain. Second, I will be thinking about how NIMH research can be structured to give payouts in the short, medium and long terms.

How has neuroscience changed since you completed your medical residency in 2001?

The advent of incredibly powerful tools to observe and alter activity in a subset of neurons, such as optogenetics, has been transformational. It is allowing us to get at questions of how neural circuits produce behaviour — a research approach that may soon generate new treatments for psychiatric disorders.

Which of the recent NIMH Programme do you find particularly exciting?

One is the Human Connectome Project. The project has scanned the brains of more than 1,000 healthy people to generate individual maps of their neural circuitry, the ‘wiring’ in their brains that accounts for their particular personalities. At the NIMH, we have created standardized databases, designed by the scientific community, to store this information. The Human Connectome Project is going to be a tremendous resource for the field — maybe not quite as impactful as the Human Genome Project, but on that scale, I think.

A clinical programme that deserves as much attention, but perhaps doesn’t get it, is the Coordinated Specialty Care project for individuals facing their first psychotic episode. Some small studies have shown that coordinating different clinical and social-support programmes helps individuals to cope better.