Future of Mental Health

The US National institute for Mental Health just got a new chief. Tom Insel, who spent 13 years at this position headed for a job at Alphabet (google). The new man on top, Joshua Gordon, said in one of his first statements that we would need more maths at all levels of neuroscience.

This is indeed worth a look. Google is known as a world-wide leader in collecting e.g. behavioral data from humans. Through their search engine and other services they are likely to have gathered a massive amount of personalized data, allowing them to create very detailed profiles of many people in every country. Now, Tom Insel, who  pushed the so called RDoCs into the field of neuropsychiatric research, joins this company. This might suggest a switch, or better a widening of google`s scope: From  descriptive every day data that allowed personalized web advertisement google now might aim at pathological behaviors. On the one side, this might be a chance, having a big player around that gathers data and has leading competence in analyzing these datasets. However, on the other side, the line between every-day behavior and pathological behavior related to psychopathology is fragile. The borders are blurred. In contrast to other fields of medicine, the fact that someone is regarded as mentally ill also depends on the opinion of the majority of people. Google as a main provider of web-based communication and knowledge transfer therefore might be able to influence what we call "normal" or pathological.

From my point of view the involvement of large companies and "information traders" in mental healthy related issues could lead to an unfortunate change of data politics. While within the last decade, the tenedency was there to create open access databases to share also (anonymized) mental health data, now researchers should be more careful what type of data really should be available for everyone, including google&co. The only advantage of non-commercial research in comparison to money-driven attempts to gain knowledge in the field of mental disordes is the fact, that companies like google do not have clinical data. Or do not have it yet. One should be aware of this.


As a further step in analyzing huge datasets related with neuroscience research can be seen one of the first statements of Joshua Gordon, the new NIMH chief: "We need to inject more math into every level of the NIMH portfolio." Although Mr. Gordon was talking about researchers and students, it is a fact that the main competene in the promising new fields of e.g. deep learning that are likley to be needed for an adequat analysis can be found at companies like google. It will be difficult to maintain competency of analyzing data at the accademic institutions or at smaller-scale industries partners within the next years. Still, it is obvioulsy necessary to do so to prevent the mental health sector from large influences of big-name companies that already impact large parts of our every day life. Google (but not only them) can collect data, analyze it and provide it back to us as perzonalized options, influencing the way we think and act. Although this is does not have to be a problem, some awareness on this "information-behavior-information loop" monopol is necessary.


Now I wish both, Tom Insel and Joshua Gordon all the best in their new jobs, hoping that their consciousness of responsibilitiy will lead their work.


Sebastian Olbrich

President of the IPEG

Posted on 5 nov 2016


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