Today, thanks to better early detection, there are 63% fewer deaths from heart disease than there were just a few decades ago. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, wonders: Could we do the same for depression and schizophrenia? The first step in this new avenue of research, he says, is a crucial reframing: for us to stop thinking about “mental disorders” and start understanding them as “brain disorders.” (Filmed at TEDxCaltech.)

Why you should listen:

Thomas Insel has seen many advances in the understanding of mental disorders since becoming the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2002. During his tenure, major breakthroughs have been made in the areas of practical clinical trials, autism research and the role of genetics in mental illnesses.

Who is he:

Prior to his appointment at the NIMH, Insel was a professor of psychiatry at Emory University, studying the neurobiology of complex social behaviors. While there, he was the founding director of the NSF Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and director of the NIH-funded Center for Autism Research. He has published over 250 scientific articles and four books and has served on numerous academic, scientific, and professional committees and boards. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine, a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and a recipient of the Outstanding Service Award from the U.S. Public Health Service and the 2010 La Fondation IPSEN Neuronal Plasticity Prize.


  1. Discuss the relationship between early detection of a disease and the subsequent success rate for intervention. Are all disorders easy to spot at an early stage? If not, what are the possible consequences
  1. How is the concept of Disability Adjusted Life Years,linked to health in general, and mental health in particular
  1. What neurological characteristics do Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s share in common?
  1. With Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s why is early diagnosis difficult? What are the consequences of a late diagnosis for a patient?
  1. If you were attempting to discover an early identification strategy for any of the described disorders – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s (and you are a psychologist) what areas would you focus on? Why?
  1. Try some internet research. See what current information you can find concerning the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s and write up a Public Service Announcement and submit it to a local radio station or newspaper.

Toward a new understanding of mental illness with Thomas Insel


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