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Transforming the understanding
and treatment of mental illnesses.

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Banner of Shelli Avenevoli, Ph.D.

Showing Support for Basic Researchers


In my professional life, I have held many different roles. I am a psychiatrist who cares deeply for my patients, who spend much of their lives struggling with the burden of mental illnesses. I am a neuroscientist, deeply interested in the inner workings of the brain. More recently, as Director of NIMH, I am also an administrator, helping shape the direction of mental health research, from the most basic science to mental health services and intervention research.

In holding these multiple roles, I’ve gained a unique perspective on the field of mental health as a whole—the one thing I’ve observed, time and again, is that basic science is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Every day, thanks to the hard work and dedication of thousands of neuroscientists, we learn more and more about function and dysfunction in the brain, leading to better treatments for mental illnesses.

Given the foundational role basic science plays in the bench-to-bedside pipeline, accomplishments in basic science should be celebrated. However, because basic science frequently involves animal models, researchers investigating basic science often come under attack by animal rights activists. Dr. Elisabeth Murray, my colleague at NIMH, is one such researcher whose work has recently been targeted for her use of non-human primates.

Few neuroscientists have done more to enhance our understanding of the prefrontal cortex and its role in the control of fear, value-based decisions, and action planning than Dr. Murray. Over the better part of the past four decades, Dr. Murray has conducted a remarkable series of experiments that has clarified the brain mechanisms underlying complex behaviors that go awry in mental illnesses. In particular, her lab has pioneered the methods necessary to study these behaviors in Macaca mulatta, a species of non-human primate with a prefrontal cortex that closely resembles that of humans, a key factor enabling a deeper understanding of human brain diseases. Dr. Murray’s work has been incredibly important in laying the foundation for efforts to translate neurobiological findings into solutions that will improve the lives of those who live with mental illnesses.

Members of special interest groups have recently engaged in an unrelenting campaign against Dr. Murray, posting misleading videos and alarming social media messages about her work on the web; holding protests in her neighborhood in the midst of the COVID pandemic; and harassing her and other NIMH scientists with a disruptive series of phone calls, emails, and other intrusive requests whose main purpose is to interfere with their ability to carry out their crucial research.

One might wonder: Why are mental health researchers, such as Dr. Murray, being targeted? To me, it is all too plain. These groups take advantage of the unwarranted stigma that is still associated with mental illnesses today. The reality is that mental illnesses are like any other medical conditions—they are disorders of biological systems that demand a thorough and complete research response, including supporting basic science research. My patients suffer every bit as much as those with other illnesses and they are deserving of every bit of knowledge that Dr. Murray and her colleagues can generate.

To transform our understanding and treatment of mental illnesses, we must continue to deepen our understanding of the brain and how it functions. Animal studies are critical to advancing this brain science and NIMH will continue to support the hard-working scientists, such as Dr. Murray, who are using model organisms to gain insight into the body’s most complex organ.