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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: NIMH Basic Science Support: Busting Myths

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Recently, a program officer in NIMH’s extramural basic science division asked a senior, well-respected, NIMH-supported investigator why he had not submitted any recent grant applications. The PI looked surprised and asked, “Does NIMH still support basic research? I thought we had to include a clinical population to even be considered for funding.”


In fact, NIMH has always and will continue to support cutting edge basic science research. Our Division of Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science continues to be the largest of our five extramural divisions, representing roughly 40% of our extramural funding. Yes, we care about translation, but to build a translational bridge we will need a very strong foundation in basic science.  This foundation will need to be multidisciplinary, integrating biology and psychology.  It will need to look across species, identifying principles of brain-behavior organization. Most important, it will need to cross levels of analysis – from genetic to molecular, to cellular, to systems, to complex behaviors, to social context.

It seems obvious, but bears repeating, that understanding normal functioning of brain-behavior relationships is critical to providing insight into abnormal brain-behavior relationships. To discover the causes of psychiatric disorders and develop improved treatments and interventions, NIMH must demonstrate how interactions between genes, environment, experiences, and development contribute to the formation and function of brain circuits.

What specific areas need more focus for a multidisciplinary approach to brain and behavior? NIMH has long-standing and ever-evolving interests in the mechanisms underlying emotion, executive function, impulsivity, social cognition, and memory. Cross-cutting priorities include a focus on mechanisms of neurodevelopment and sex/gender differences. Similarly ripe and relevant areas of emphasis include the functional connectivity of brain networks, neural and behavioral plasticity. 

Comparative studies that identify fundamental principles of behavioral biology across species (e.g. likely sources of individual variation, conserved mechanisms of plasticity, the epigenetic basis of sensitive periods of development) are likely to become the foundation for the translational bridge. And translation goes in both directions: the study of “model animals” (engineered with genetic insights from clinical studies) may prove more informative than “animal models” (which mimic aspects of clinical disorders). 

So, how can you tell if your basic research project is suitable for NIMH funding? Not all basic science belongs at NIMH. There are exceptions, but most studies of primary sensory or motor systems, metabolic regulation, or healthy aging will be better served by other Institutes.  Some exclusively behavioral or social science research that does not cross levels of analysis may be better served by NSF or by one of the new cross-NIH efforts, such as OppNet or the Science of Behavior Change. NIMH provides numerous resources for potential grant applicants. Good written references on this topic include: “Setting Priorities for Basic Brain & Behavioral Science Research at NIMH” (PDF file, 15 pages), and the Division on Neuroscience and Basic Behavioral Science web-site. The best resource is always your program officer!

What’s the bottom line? Because psychiatric diseases are often characterized by deficits in complex social behavior, affective regulation, and cognition, NIMH is interested in basic research that explores the mechanisms underlying these critical aspects of mental life. The core idea is this: if we can understand the brain mechanisms responsible for how we experience emotions, make decisions, or interact with others, then we will be in a better position to understand how psychiatric diseases rob people of these abilities. Thus, basic research is the first, critical step down the road toward new and better treatments, cures and, ultimately, prevention of these devastating diseases.