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Advancing Neuroscience Research: America’s Next Great Challenge

Mental health care insurance parity—which has been codified in federal law but has been poorly implemented—is an issue like the civil-rights movement, he said. “We need to end treatment of mental illness as segregation. It’s health care for the whole person.”

Advancing Neuroscience Research: America’s Next Great Challenge (link)

Aaron Levin

The opening of the new Menninger Clinic provides an opportunity for leaders in psychiatry and neuroscience to offer visions of the future.

Psychiatry and neuroscience need revised agendas, said speakers at a symposium in Houston who looked at the intertwined disciplines from the views of consumers, clinicians, and researchers.

The April 12 event marked the opening of the new Menninger Clinic, now affiliated with the Department of Psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine (see New Menninger Clinic Is Centerpiece of Ambitious Growth Plans).

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy reminded the audience that mental health was a part of general health. “If you’ve got something from the neck up, you have to go down the hall.”

“We are reimbursed for concussions or lacerations that happen when driving drunk, but not for what brought you into the E.R.,” said Kennedy, who identified himself as a consumer of mental health care. “If we reimbursed for diabetes care the way we reimburse for mental health care, we’d pay for amputations or blindness but not preventive care. The current model of care is inefficient.”

Mental health care insurance parity—which has been codified in federal law but has been poorly implemented—is an issue like the civil-rights movement, he said. “We need to end treatment of mental illness as segregation. It’s health care for the whole person.”

That approach should appeal to both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans—caring for people and saving money, he noted.

Kennedy is the son of the late Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. He recalled the latter’s speech in 1962 promising that the U.S. would send men to the moon and back by the end of that decade.

“We did it because we put our mind to it,” said Patrick Kennedy. “Neuroscientists are the astronauts of our age. What you do cannot be underestimated.”

Numerous other challenges face neuroscience, said other speakers.

Research has led to major advances in heart disease and cancer, improving prevention and reducing mortality, said Thomas Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The same cannot be said for research on mental illness.

“Prevalence and mortality have not decreased for any [mental] illness,” said Insel. “Diagnosis is by observation, etiology is unknown, prevention is generic, and treatment is by trial and error.”

When combined with other conditions, mental illness is the single largest driver of health care costs, Insel noted.

Mental illnesses are brain disorders but not focal lesions, he said. “Not dead cells but problems of brain circuitry, and we now have the tools to look at how brain cells are connected structurally and functionally.”

For instance, schizophrenia may be not one disorder but 200 that end in common final pathways, he said. “Psychosis may be just a late stage in the process, so we need to look upstream.”

Looking upstream may give clues for preemptive interventions. NIMH is now developing its Research Domain Criteria, for example, which will combine careful clinical observation, biomarkers, cells, circuits, and family history. The goal is to transform treatment so that it is based on pathophysiology, can be applied preemptively, is personalized, and has an impact on public health, he concluded.

“Our profession affects major mental health problems,” said Laura Roberts, M.D., M.A., a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide cope with mental illnesses, she said. By 2020, mental illness will be the leading cause of death and disability. These statistics are particularly alarming because many people do not seek treatment.

“Stigma is a powerful barrier to care,” Roberts said. As an example of the pervasiveness of stigma, she cited a survey of surgeons in the United States that found that 15 percent had thoughts of suicide, but many failed to enter treatment because they feared disclosure would damage their careers.

This increased need for care and the stigma often attached to receiving it come at a time when neuroscience is making key research advances, Roberts pointed out. The familiar descriptive approach to neuropsychiatric illnesses is now benefitting from new insights drawn from studies of brain functioning and structure, neural networks, genetics and epigenetics, and epidemiology.

“There is also a new understanding of the relationship between physical illnesses, mental illnesses, and addiction-related disorders,” said Roberts.

In fact, psychiatry could be seen as a home for “truly modern science,” she said. Psychiatry is interdisciplinary and innovative. Transformative new paths, like optogenetics and epigenetics, are emerging.

“At the same time, we are an embattled and divided profession,” she suggested. “Biology and psychotherapy are placed in opposition to each other, even as we learn that those treatments work well together.”

In addition, psychiatry is mocked or disparaged in the media. It is seen as mysterious and complicated.

Despite an obvious need, not enough young people are entering the profession, she said. From 2007 to 2011, only 40 PGY-1 residency slots were added in psychiatry. “This year 182 out of 189 residency programs did not fill with U.S. students,” she said. “Restoring trust in the profession means remembering that we are first physicians. We live in the house of medicine and should use our expertise in the service of others—providing excellent clinical care, developing new knowledge, helping our colleagues, and assuring the clinical and ethical standards of our profession.”

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