It has been several years since Dr. Thomas Insel left his post as director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to collaborate on mental health solutions with Google Life Sciences, an arm of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, now known as Verily. Insel is not the first or last government official to treat himself or herself to the riches of the industry revolving door (Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin surfaced at PhRMA after overseeing Medicare legislation; CDC director Julie Gerberding surfaced at Merck ). But Insel has a disturbing former cronyism record that should not be forgotten.
Cronyism on display
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in 2010 Insel assured the University of Miami’s medical school dean that if he hired his colleague, the disgraced researcher Charles Nemeroff whose multi-million NIH grant was suspended—NIH grants would still flow.
Insel presumably “owed” Nemeroff because as the former head of psychiatry at Emory University Nemeroff got Insel a job at there when Insel’s research was not renewed at NIH in 1994. Nemeroff then led a lobbying effort to get Insel named as NIMH director in 2002, according to the Chronicle.
In Insel’s new book, Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health, there is not much mention of the the cronyism, the “musical jobs,” the NIH grant hanky panky or even Insel’s former psychiatric positions. For example, Insel was credited with moving the NIMH away from behavioral research toward biological psychiatry, 4th graph page 45—the belief that mental illness can be explained by neuroscience and genetics—yet in his new book he now writes, “recovery is not just relief of symptoms, it’s finding connection, sanctuary and meaning.” Is this a newer, gentler Insel or an admission that in almost ten years, the colossal, biological psychiatry-based $100 million U.S. government “Brain Initiative” has failed to unlock any brain secrets? Can taxpayers have their money back?
Insel now says the genetic brain maps for which he cheer-leaded for so many years—once even calling the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the Bible of modern psychiatry, not an “objective laboratory measure”—3rd graph haven’t helped patients
Nor does Insel seem to be the psych drug advocate he was when he defended a CDC report of 10,000 toddlers on psych drugs with the suggestion that maybe “there is a real increase in the number of children suffering with severe emotional problems.”
In fact, for demographics that are at greater risk of mental illness, Insel now promotes “low-tech, high-touch interventions,” says a February 12, 2022, Wall Street Journal interview and writeup about his book. Hugs not drugs?
Will these experiments also be hidden?
Insel is the former director of the huge Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University and you have to wonder whether his related and subsequent animal research will also been downplayed.
In one experiment, reminiscent of Harlow “pit of despair“ research, newborn monkeys were “removed from their mothers within 48 h of birth,” and subjected to “stressors” (use your imagination) without being “able to use a social companion to buffer their response to a stressor.” What did this admittedly redundant experiment add to scientific knowledge? “As expected from previous studies, monkeys removed from their mother shortly after birth and raised in standard nursery conditions develop a syndrome characterized by decreased affiliation, increased aggression, and increased self-directed, repetitive behavior,” write the researchers.
In another experiment conducted by Insel on voles, a mouse-like mammal, “an animal was placed in the start box” with 2-8 days old pups. “Parental behavior was recorded as time spent with pups, either nursing, grooming or crouching during a 5-min period. Females were decapitated the same day.”
Institute director and tax dollars
The newer, gentler Insel may be on display in Healing, but Insel’s cronyism, abuse of our tax dollars, opportunistic reversal of his medical positions and treatment of non-human animals are still found in the public record.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.