Science TEDx

Thomas Insel’s insights on mental health: a tale of two TED playlists

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

brain-feature1In the past 30 years, major advances have been made when it comes to treating several serious diseases. Today, there are 85% fewer deaths from leukemia and 63% fewer fatalities from heart disease than there were then. Meanwhile, while AIDS was once considered a death sentence, people with the disease can now live to old age. Not to mention that a remarkable third of the people who have strokes not only live — but leave the hospital without any disability.

Thomas Insel: Toward a new understanding of mental illnessThomas Insel: Toward a new understanding of mental illness “These are just remarkable changes,” says Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, in today’s talk given at TEDxCaltech. “All of them boil down to understanding something about the disease that has allowed us to detect early and intervene early.”

Sadly though, Insel says, the news isn’t good across the board. The rate of suicide, he says, has not changed at all over the last three decades. About 90% of suicides are related to mental illness. And while 1 in 5 people will be affected by a psychiatric disorder, scientists still understand dangerously little about these diseases. In fact, says Insel, we don’t even know what to call them. The terms preferred at the moment – “mental disorders” and “behavioral disorders” — are misleading, because they point to symptoms rather than to the disease itself.

“Both of those terms which have been in play for a century or more are actually now impediments to progress,” says Insel. “What we need conceptually here is to rethink these disorders as ‘brain disorders.’”

In this talk, Insel reveals why he believes we are about to turn a corner in understanding the brain, which he calls an “organ of surreal complexity.” As scientists get a better understanding of its workings and development, they’ll start to understand the patterns of brain disorders. It’s possible that, as with heart disease, scientists will be able to identify risk factors. To hear how this could lead to early detection of brain disorders — and even interventions before a person so much as experiences or displays symptoms — watch this fascinating talk.

“The good news stories in medicine are early detection and early intervention,” explains Insel. “If we waited until the heart attack, we would be sacrificing 1.1 million lives every year in this country to heart disease. That’s precisely what we do when we decide that everyone with one of these brain disorders has a ‘behavioral disorder’ – we wait until the behavior becomes manifest.”

Insel’s talk reminds us of two powerful TED playlists.

First it reminds us of the list “All Kinds of Minds,” which features several TED Talks from people who’ve had the experience of living with a brain disorder. It begins with legal scholar Elyn Saks describing her own experience of schizophrenia, moves on to activist autism activist Temple Grandin describing how her mind works, and builds to Joshua Walters, who is bipolar, asking: What’s the balance between medicating craziness away and riding its creative edge?

Insel’s talk also reminds us of the playlist “How does my brain work?,” which brings together talks about incredible research that’s helping scientists better understand our minds. It begins with neuroscientist Daniel Wolport giving a fascinating theory on why the brain evolved, moves on to Allan Jones and his initiative to map of the brain, and ends with Michael Merzenich giving evidence of the brain’s plasticity.

Also very worth checking out: Thomas Insel’s blog, where he just last week wrote about CLARITY, the newest way scientists at Stanford University are looking at the brain »