A psychiatrist and neurobiologist who began his career at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has been tapped as its next director. Yesterday NIH director Elias Zerhouni appointed Thomas Insel, now at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to the post. NIH also announced the appointment of Ting-Kai Li as director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
Insel, 50, spent 15 years at NIMH before leaving to head Emory's Yerkes National Primate Research Center in 1994. Originally a clinician, he led the first studies to show that obsessive-compulsive disorder can be treated with drugs. Later he moved to the lab, studying the cellular and molecular basis of social bonding using animals such as voles as models. In 1999, he became head of a new National Science Foundation-funded center for behavioral neuroscience. Insel says one of his top priorities will be to get clinical treatments coming out of genomics into the health care system, a goal his new boss shares. But Insel did not ask Zerhouni to let him keep his lab; it was a "tough decision," he says, but the $1.3-billion-a-year NIMH "really deserves a full-time director."
Former NIMH director Steven Hyman, who stepped down in December 2001 to become provost at Harvard, gives top marks to Insel. "He brings to the table exactly what the institute needs in terms of expertise." Colleagues describe Insel as a warm and likeable manager, if more low-key than some NIH directors. He will formally take the reins in mid-November.
Li, 67, who will direct the $386-million-a-year NIAAA, is a Chinese-born, Harvard-educated endocrinologist. He has been at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis since 1971. Li is famous for breeding ethanol-loving rats, which now serve as the primary animal model in alcoholism research. He is also well-known for fundamental work in characterizing an enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase, which is the only known genetically conferred protective factor against alcoholism.
Fellow researchers are delighted by the appointment. "I don't think we could have done better," says psychiatrist Henri Begleiter of the State University of New York's Health Science Center in Brooklyn, who says Li "is probably the premier researcher in the field of alcoholism." Li, whose predecessor Enoch Gordis retired in January, expects to come on board in November.