The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders, including human genetics and genomics research. Joshua A. Gordon, MD, PhD, serves as the Institute’s director, overseeing an extensive research portfolio of basic and clinical research that seeks to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure. We spoke with Dr. Gordon to learn more about the interests of NIMH in human genetics research and about the role the institute is playing in addressing diversity in science.
ASHG: In NIMH’s new strategic plan articulating the Institute’s research directions for the next several years, you note how a genetic revolution is providing insights into connections between the human genome and mental illness. What are the ways in which human genetics and genomics research approaches can help address mental illness and help NIMH achieve its strategic plan goals, and what recent research advances in this area most excite you?
Dr. Gordon: Advances in human genetics are crucial to the future of mental health research in three ways. First, continued gene discovery will expand our knowledge of the etiology of mental illnesses. Second, translating from genes to biological pathways will identify the pathophysiological mechanisms that can serve as novel targets for treatment. And third, increased knowledge of large effect-size mutations and their contributions to mental illnesses could pave the way for gene-based therapies, aided by technological developments being pioneered through the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative and other efforts.
ASHG: You have spoken about the need for greater diversity in participation in mental health research, including genetics research. How much progress are we making in broadening participation in research, and what are some of the ways in which NIMH is addressing it for mental health research?
Dr. Gordon: We have made some progress in broadening participation in mental health research and specifically in genomics, but we need to increase these efforts. Over the past two years, NIMH has made specific, targeted investments aimed at expanding the diversity of our genetic samples. Studies funded recently will dramatically increase the availability of genetic information from individuals of Hispanic and African descent. Already, these efforts have begun to pay off; greater diversity in genetic samples means not only increased relevance to diverse populations but also increased accuracy and specificity of genetic findings for everyone.
ASHG: Ending structural racism and increasing diversity in the research workforce is a major focus at NIH and in the biomedical research community. Of course, the NIH recently launched the UNITE initiative. How is NIMH working to support a more diverse and inclusive workforce?
Dr. Gordon: NIMH is directly involved in the NIH-wide UNITE initiative. NIMH staff serve on two of the five committees, and the recommendations of the UNITE committees are influencing actions we take already. Within NIMH itself, we are advancing efforts to end structural racism both within NIMH and in the broader mental health research community. The NIMH Anti-Racism Task Force, convened last year, has been charged with making recommendations to NIMH leadership on the internal environment and is orchestrating internal listening sessions. I’ve reported on their recommendations to our advisory council; these include recommendations targeted at training, career development, and the internal culture at NIMH. Externally, we’ve also conducted listening sessions with scientists from underrepresented groups and have established procedures aimed at reducing the gaps in success rates by race and ethnicity. Finally, we’ve renewed our commitment to research on mental health disparities and are currently recruiting a new director for our Office of Disparities Research and Workforce Diversity. You can read more about these efforts in this NIMH Director’s Statement: Our Commitment to Ending Structural Racism in Biomedical Research.
ASHG: How can ASHG members best stay abreast of NIMH’s work related to human genetics research, diversity, and on other topics?
Dr. Gordon: There are two main ways that ASHG members can stay up-to-date on NIMH news. The first way is to sign up to receive NIMH e-newsletters. After signing up, there will be an option to select specific topics of interest, including genetics. The second way is to follow us on social media—I’m on Twitter (@NIMHDirector) and NIMH is on all the major platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn). Both are great ways to learn about the latest NIMH news, including new research findings, funding and training opportunities, events, and resources on mental illnesses.
You can read more from Dr. Gordon on the genetics of mental health on the institute’s website. The website also provides information on NIMH’s support for genetics research – including its Human Genetics Initiative and intramural Human Genetics and Genomics Research branches – and materials published for the public.