Thomas R. Insel

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Thomas R. Insel
Thomas Insel NIMH 2011.JPG
Born (1951-10-19) October 19, 1951 (age 67)
Alma mater Boston University (B.A.)
Boston University (M.D.)
Known forResearch on oxytocin and vasopressin and their impact on social behavior
Scientific career
Institutions National Institute of Mental Health
Emory University

Thomas Roland Insel (born October 19, 1951) is an American neuroscientist and psychiatrist who led the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) from 2002 until November 2015. [1] Prior to becoming Director of NIMH, he was the founding Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. [2] [3] He is best known for research on oxytocin and vasopressin, two peptide hormones implicated in complex social behaviors, such as parental care and attachment. [4] [5] He announced on Sept. 15, 2015, that he was resigning as the director of the NIMH to join the Life Science division of Google X (now Verily Life Sciences). [6] On May 8, 2017, CNBC reported that he had left Verily Life Sciences. [7] Insel is a Co-founder with Richard Klausner of a neuroscience company named "Mindstrong," [8] a Bay-area startup.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the most populous city is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Neuroscientist individual who studies neuroscience

A neuroscientist is a scientist who has specialised knowledge in the field of neuroscience, the branch of biology that deals with the physiology, biochemistry, anatomy and molecular biology of neurons and neural circuits and especially their association with behaviour and learning.

A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in psychiatry, the branch of medicine devoted to the diagnosis, prevention, study, and treatment of mental disorders. Psychiatrists are medical doctors, unlike psychologists, and must evaluate patients to determine whether their symptoms are the result of a physical illness, a combination of physical and mental ailments, or strictly psychiatric. A psychiatrist usually works as the clinical leader of the multi-disciplinary team, which may comprise psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and nursing staff. Psychiatrists have broad training in a bio-psycho-social approach to assessment and management of mental illness.


Early years

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Insel was the youngest of four sons. His father, H. Herbert Insel, was an ophthalmologist who moved the family from Ohio to Silver Spring, Maryland in 1960. There, the precocious Insel earned his Eagle Scout badge just after turning 13, began college courses at age 14 and left high school to enroll in the Boston University Combined Pre-Med- Medical Program, where he focused on English literature, at age 15. By age 17, having completed most of the requirements for his pre-medical degree and still below draft age, Insel began exploring the world. He hitch-hiked across Canada and through the West, married Deborah Silber soon after his 18th birthday, then traveled with her around the world, stopping to work at a TB clinic in Hong Kong and a mission hospital in Bihar, India.

Dayton, Ohio City in Ohio, United States

Dayton is the sixth-largest city in the state of Ohio and the county seat of Montgomery County. A small part of the city extends into Greene County. The 2017 U.S. census estimate put the city population at 140,371, while Greater Dayton was estimated to be at 803,416 residents. This makes Dayton the fourth-largest metropolitan area in Ohio and 63rd in the United States. Dayton is within Ohio's Miami Valley region, just north of Greater Cincinnati.

Silver Spring, Maryland Census-designated place in Maryland, United States

Silver Spring is an unincorporated community, village bordering Washington, D.C., and census-designated place located inside the Capital Beltway in Montgomery County, Maryland, United States. It had a population of 79,483, according to the 2017 official estimate by the United States Census Bureau, making it the fourth most populous place in Maryland, after Baltimore, Columbia, and Germantown, and the second largest in Montgomery County after Germantown. The official Silver Spring CDP consists of the following neighborhoods: Downtown Silver Spring, East Silver Spring, Woodside, North Woodside, Woodside Park, Lyttonsville, North Hills Sligo Park, Long Branch, Montgomery Knolls, Franklin Knolls, Indian Spring Terrace, Indian Spring Village, Clifton Park Village, New Hampshire Estates, Oakview, and Woodmoor. Neighborhoods with Silver Spring mailing addresses include: Four Corners, Wheaton, Glenmont, Forest Glen, Aspen Hill, Hillandale, White Oak, Colesville, Colesville Park, Cloverly, Calverton, Briggs Chaney, Greencastle, Northwood Park, Sunset Terrace, Fairland, and Kemp Mill.

Boston University private research university in Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Boston University is a private research university in Boston, Massachusetts. The university is nonsectarian, but has been historically affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

From 1970-1974 Insel attended Boston University Medical School with plans to return to Asia working in tropical medicine. These plans changed with exposure to two prominent Boston neuroscientists: Walle Nauta at MIT and Norman Geschwind at Harvard Medical School. Following medical school, he trained in psychiatry at University California San Francisco (1976-1979) including a Jungian psychoanalysis and a first exposure to research with Irwin Feinberg.

Harvard Medical School Medical school in Boston, MA

Harvard Medical School (HMS) is the graduate medical school of Harvard University. It is located in the Longwood Medical Area of the Mission Hill neighborhood in Boston, Massachusetts. Founded in 1782, HMS is one of the oldest medical schools in the United States and is consistently ranked 1st among research-oriented medical schools by U.S. News and World Report. Unlike most other leading medical schools, HMS does not operate in conjunction with a single hospital but is directly affiliated with several teaching hospitals in the Boston area. The HMS faculty has approximately 2,900 full- and part-time voting faculty members consisting of assistant, associate, and full professors, and over 5,000 full- and part-time, non-voting instructors. The majority of the faculty receive their appointments through an affiliated teaching hospital.

University of California, San Francisco university

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is a public research university in San Francisco, California. It is part of the University of California system and it is dedicated entirely to health science. It is a major center of medical and biological research and teaching.

Psychoanalysis psychological theory that was founded in 1890 by the Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud

Psychoanalysis is a set of theories and therapeutic techniques related to the study of the unconscious mind, which together form a method of treatment for mental-health disorders. The discipline was established in the early 1890s by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud and stemmed partly from the clinical work of Josef Breuer and others. Psychoanalysis was later developed in different directions, mostly by students of Freud such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav Jung, and by neo-Freudians such as Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Harry Stack Sullivan. Freud retained the term psychoanalysis for his own school of thought.

Research career

Following clinical training, Insel joined the NIMH as a clinical fellow working with Dennis Murphy. In 1980 he began the first U.S. research project on the biology of adults with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which was then largely treated with psychoanalysis. Following initial reports from Sweden, Insel was the first to demonstrate scientifically that a tricyclic antidepressant, clomipramine, was effective for treating OCD. This observation not only launched the neuropharmacological study of OCD, it suggested the importance of developing the SSRI class of antidepressants, which became a mainstay for treating both depression and OCD in the 1990s.

Clomipramine chemical compound

Clomipramine, sold under the brand name Anafranil among others, is a tricyclic antidepressant (TCA). It is used for the treatment of obsessive–compulsive disorder, panic disorder, major depressive disorder, and chronic pain. It may decrease the risk of suicide in those over the age of 65. It is taken by mouth.

Antidepressants are drugs used for the treatment of major depressive disorder and of other conditions, including some anxiety disorders, some chronic pain conditions, and to help manage some addictions. Typical side-effects of antidepressants include dry mouth, weight gain, lack of sex drive, anhedonia, emotional blunting, and in some cases erectile dysfunction. Most types of antidepressants are typically safe to take, but may cause increased thoughts of suicide when taken by children, adolescents, and young adults. A discontinuation syndrome can occur after stopping any antidepressant which resembles recurrent depression. Debate in the medical community centers around whether or not the observed results in patients can be attributed to the placebo effect.

Following this foray into clinical research, Insel moved from the clinic into the laboratory to study the neurobiology of emotion. Beginning in the NIMH Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior started by Paul Maclean in Poolesville, MD, his group developed some of the classic studies for investigating social behavior in animals, from ultrasonic vocalizations in rodent pups to social attachment in prairie voles to paternal care in marmosets. A major focus was oxytocin, known to support lactation and parturition, but shown in rats to be important for the initiation of maternal care by actions on brain receptors. Oxytocin and the related hormone vasopressin were also found to be critical for pair bonding in adult prairie voles. The Insel lab found that monogamous voles and non-monogamous voles (that did not pair bond) had brain receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin in different brain circuits, suggesting a mechanism for the evolution of monogamy in mammals.[ citation needed ]

Emotion is a mental state associated with the nervous system brought on by chemical changes variously associated with thoughts, feelings, behavioural responses, and a degree of pleasure or displeasure. There is currently no scientific consensus on a definition. Emotion is often intertwined with mood, temperament, personality, disposition, and motivation.

Social behavior Behavior among two or more organisms, typically of same species

Social behavior is behavior among two or more organisms within the same species, and encompasses any behavior in which one member affects the other. This is due to an interaction among those members. Social behavior can be seen as similar to an exchange of goods, with the expectation that when you give, you will receive the same. This behavior can be effected by both the qualities of the individual and the environmental (situational) factors. Therefore, social behavior arises as a result of an interaction between the two—the organism and its environment. This means that, in regards to humans, social behavior can be determined by both the individual characteristics of the person, and the situation they are in.

Ultrasound vibrations with frequencies above the human hearing range

Ultrasound is sound waves with frequencies higher than the upper audible limit of human hearing. Ultrasound is not different from "normal" (audible) sound in its physical properties, except that humans cannot hear it. This limit varies from person to person and is approximately 20 kilohertz in healthy young adults. Ultrasound devices operate with frequencies from 20 kHz up to several gigahertz.

In 1994 Insel was recruited to Emory University to direct the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, the nation's oldest and internationally one of the largest centers for research on monkeys and great apes. His tenure at Yerkes was marked by a focus on neurobiology and infectious disease, with a specific emphasis on development of an AIDS vaccine. This was also a period of considerable animal rights protests against Yerkes, with Insel and his family targeted by protesters opposed to invasive research with non-human primates.

In 1999 Insel resigned from Yerkes to lead a new $40 million National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center, the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. This new program used behavioral neuroscience to develop a cross-institutional training and research effort for 7 colleges and universities in Atlanta, with a specific goal of increasing the number of African American undergraduate students participating in neuroscience research. This period was also a productive phase for social neuroscience research carried out at Emory. Larry Young, Zuoxin Wang, and Jim Winslow and several outstanding graduate students focused on the molecular biology, anatomy, and behavioral properties of oxytocin and vasopressin, providing critical evidence for the role of these neuropeptide systems in complex social behaviors. In his final years at Emory Insel led the team into studies of autism, starting a new NIH funded Autism Center to investigate oxytocin and vasopressin as potential treatments for this disorder of social behavior.

NIMH director

Insel's return to become the ninth director of NIMH in 2002 was unexpected, as he had little connection to academic psychiatry or psychology since his OCD research which ended almost twenty years before. At NIMH he quickly focused on serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and major depressive disorder with a defining theme of these illnesses as disorders of brain circuits. Building on the genomics revolution, he created large repositories of DNA and funded many of the first large genotyping and sequencing efforts to identify risk genes. He established autism as a major area of focus for NIMH and led a large increase of NIH funding for autism research. Under his leadership, autism, as a developmental brain disorder, became a prototype for mental disorders, most of which also emerge during development. And during his tenure, NIMH became a leader in global mental health, working closely with the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance for Chronic Disease.


In May 2017, Dr. Insel joined Mindstrong, based in Palo Alto, California, as the startup's President and Co-Founder. [9]


Insel is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences.[6] He has received the A.E. Bennett Award (1986), the Curt Richter Prize (1991), the Outstanding Service Award from the US Public Health Service (1993), the Sachar Prize (2007), the Outstanding Alumnus Award from Boston University (2009), the NAMI Outstanding Service Award (2009), the IPSEN Prize (2010), the Shorr Family Prize from the University of Arizona (2011), the Dr. Nathan Davis Award for Government Service from the American Medical Association (2013), the Jed Foundation Voice of Mental Health Award (2013), the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 2013 Scientific Partnership Award, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation ‘Productive Lives’ Award (2014), the Child Mind Institute Distinguished Scientist Award (2014), and the Autism Science Foundation Distinguished Scientist Award (2015). In 2014 Insel also received an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and in 2015 was commencement speaker for the School of Medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.


In addition to over 200 published scientific articles or chapters, books by Insel include:

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  1. Insel, Thomas R. (29 October 2015). "Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: Farewell". Blog Posts by Thomas Insel (Blog). NIMH. Retrieved 13 May 2017.
  2. "Washington in Brief" . The Washington Post . 11 September 2002. p. A.05. Retrieved 13 May 2017.
  3. "Thomas R. Insel, M.D." University of Michigan Depression Center. University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 29 August 2004.
  4. "At NIMH, Outgrowing Jung Ideas; New Chief to Focus Studies On Genes and Neurobiology "The Washington Post Nov 13, 2002.
  5. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-06-20. Retrieved 2012-12-11.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  6. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2015-09-15.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  8. "Former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Thomas Insel, Joins Mindstrong Health as President and Co-Founder". Market Wired. 11 May 2017. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  9. "Former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Thomas Insel, Joins Mindstrong Health as President and Co-Founder". Market Wired. 11 May 2017. Retrieved 1 February 2018.