Feature

Three new National Institutes of Health directors shared their visions of research directions and roles for psychology in behavioral research at APA's 2003 Annual Convention.

The directors--Thomas Insel, MD, of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); T.K. Li, MD, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA); and Nora D. Volkow, PhD, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)--focused on increased opportunities for behavioral researchers and the importance of working in multidisciplinary teams to address today's health problems.

One area of study that offers promise for psychologists, NIMH's Insel said, is capitalizing on the success of the U.S. Human Genome Project, a 13-year effort that lists the 30,000 genes in human DNA. This work provides new tools for understanding the complex interaction of biology and behavior, he said.

Scientists' work in neuroscience, brain, molecular and cellular studies is based on 300 genes or fewer--or about 1 percent of the genome--leaving about 99 percent of genes unexplored, Insel said.

"I suspect that 20 years from now we will look back and we'll think of this period as the dark ages in our understanding of the molecular basis of brain function," he said.

"This is a time when biology must rediscover psychology," he added, in bridging the gap between neurobiology and behavior in reducing mental illness.

To help do this, he said, NIMH will employ a variety of mechanisms, including funding multidisciplinary research teams; supporting translational research to develop prevention strategies and better treatments; and drawing on public and private partnerships in large-scale clinical studies of genes and outcomes, such as comorbid substance abuse and mental health disorders.

NIDA's Volkow agreed that cutting-edge science will require a systems approach, especially for the genetics and social interactions involved in addictions--the target of her institute.

Volkow highlighted several areas that NIDA will address in this area, including comorbidity, drug abuse risk factors and the role of early social experiences. Behavior plays a strong role in each of these, she said. For example, Volkow reviewed new research findings that social experiences cause changes in monkeys' brains.

Priority areas for NIDA, Volkow said, will also include treatment interventions and prevention research--such as addressing why children and adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction. She emphasized the need to translate basic, clinical research into treatment and prevention efforts in communities.

Echoing that shift, NIAAA's Li said his institute will aim to develop more refined clinical diagnostic criteria and classifications. Challenges for NIAAA will include developing interdisciplinary research teams that include scientists, practitioners and community partners, he said.

Building multidisciplinary collaboration in this "discovery-driven era of science" is crucial, NIMH's Insel said. Psychology, he added, is part of that.