NIMH Hosts 75th Anniversary Symposium
• Institute Update • 75th Anniversary
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) began celebrating its 75th Anniversary on September 13, kicking off the yearlong festivities with the symposium, “The Evolution of Mental Health Research.” Hundreds of people gathered in person and virtually to ponder what NIMH Director Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., dubbed “the most complex object in the universe”—the human brain.
The symposium covered the evolution of research on brain structure and function. During the event, researchers gave presentations on discoveries spanning topics from the timescales of nervous systems to the physical makeup of the brain.
Dr. Gordon opened the symposium by highlighting that roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illnesses.
“The costs to society are tremendous,” he said. “The costs to individuals’ families and communities are even more so—and everyone in this room knows it; knows it from personal experience or observing it in a family member or close friend.”
Noting how improvements in mental health care have not happened by accident, Dr. Gordon said that NIMH-funded research has led to significant breakthroughs in mental health care, such as medications for depression; cognitive behavioral therapy; and coordinated specialty care, which is the standard of care for early psychosis. NIMH’s goal now, as it was at its founding in 1949, is to drive research that helps people and families with mental illnesses, he said.
First keynote address: Integrating brain function in time and space
Cori Bargmann, Ph.D. , a professor at Rockefeller University, delivered the first keynote address. In her talk, Dr. Bargmann presented evidence that the nervous system can generate different “internal states” analogous to emotional states that guide its ability to produce behaviors. These flexible, reversible states share “ancient links” to innate behavior in humans, mice, and even worms.
One feature of many internal states is that they are particularly affected by neuromodulators—neuropeptides and other small molecules like serotonin and dopamine that change how information flows through neural circuits. Many existing psychiatric drugs mimic or suppress brain neuromodulators.
Internal states can be associated with everything from sleep and hunger to mood and social behavior. And while people can make conscious choices about their actions, the biologically regulated internal states play an active role in influencing motivation, emotion, and behavior, Dr. Bargmann said.
“I don’t want to say that we do not have cognitive functions, rich experiences, individual human abilities, and free will that guide our behavior,” she said. “But … there is a biology that underlies all of behavior and all the functions of the brain, and it’s good to know when you’re working with that biology and when you’re working against it.”
By better understanding neuromodulators and the biological process of change in internal states, researchers can continue to further our knowledge of mental health, she said.
Second keynote address: Inner workings of microbial membrane proteins... and brains
Stanford University professor Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., D.H. , presented the second keynote address. Dr. Deisseroth covered the topics of memory, anxiety, and dissociation, which he said were not always easy to measure. His talk focused on improving ways to measure the brain structures that direct those processes.
One of the ways neuroscientists explore brain function is through a technique known as optogenetics. Initially developed by Dr. Deisseroth, the method uses light to modify the electrical activity of cells, including neurons in the brain, and influence behavior.
Using anxiety as an example, Dr. Deisseroth noted that optogenetics studies in animals have enabled researchers to better understand which parts of the brain are involved with behaviors associated with symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Spotlighting the evolution of science
Among other highlights of the symposium, researchers gave talks on topics that included mapping the brain, improvements in electroconvulsive therapy, and the often-long path of developing medications for depression. Researchers also participated in panel discussions, taking audience questions and further discussing their work.
Outside the auditorium, researchers from the NIMH Division of Intramural Research Programs participated in a poster session showcasing their array of research conducted across the institute.
This symposium was the first of three NIMH anniversary symposia. NIMH looks forward to hosting the next symposium, “Amplifying Voices and Building Bridges: Toward a More Inclusive Future,” on March 18, which will center on the themes of inclusivity related to the definition of mental illness, workforce inclusivity, and access to research and its outcomes.