Mental health research at the BMRI: the future is here

Prof Max Bennett, Dr Tom Insel, and Prof Ian Hickie

BMRI Founding Director Professor Max Bennet, Dr Tom Insel, and BMRI Executive Director Prof Ian Hickie.

7 October 2011

World leading mental health expert and Director of the US National Institutes of Mental Health, Dr Thomas Insel recently visited the Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI), University of Sydney. He gave a lecture focused on the urgent need to develop new approaches to mental health research and service delivery.

Dr Insel's visit to our campus was in recognition of the way that the BMRI has developed a unique approach to understanding mental health, through its on-site integration of basic and clinical researchers, patients and their families, illness-support groups, industry, government and community partners. Dr Insel referred to the BMRI as having "the full package" and "doing it all on a very high level".

Over the past 30 years there has been enormous progress in reducing the number of people dying early with heart disease, and there has more recently been a significant drop in the number of deaths attributed to cancer. By contrast, in the USA no such progress has occurred in the area of mental health, which-including substance abuse, clinical depression and dementia-now accounts for over 40% of all illness burden in developed countries.

According to Dr Insel, a lack of progress in translational brain sciences has underpinned this lack of progress in reducing premature deaths and disability due to mental illness. "There are no programs yet for vaccines for autism or schizophrenia but there could be. We simply have to raise the bar on what we expect of our science" says Dr Insel.

Dr Insel emphasised the modern scientific view of major mental disorders as disorders of the brain, and commonly arising as a consequence of abnormal development. He emphasised that these patterns of abnormal development commonly arise as a result of a combination of complex genetic and experiential factors.

Unfortunately, formal diagnosis of mental conditions is still based largely on clinical consensus, and treatments are then determined by trial and error. Dr Insel suggests that the treatment selection process needs to be transformed. Ideally, treatment selection would be based on underlying biology and be preemptive-that is, designed to prevent major mental illness and highly personalised in order to have the maximum effect.

Treatment of mental illness should be "not just reducing the symptoms but helping people to function, helping people to overcome the disability of these very common and disabling illnesses" says Dr Insel.

"The BMRI is at the cutting-edge of how we're beginning to understand these disorders. It's almost like I had to leave home to see the future" says Dr Insel.