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Google hires top government brain scientist to probe mental illness

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Thomas Insel

Google ($GOOG) is bringing on Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), to work for its burgeoning Life Science group and apply the company's technologies to mental illness.

Insel, who worked for the NIMH for 13 years, is "currently working out the final details for a move to the life sciences team" at Google's reconceptualized Alphabet company, he said in a statement. The company is hard at work on new healthcare technologies, Insel pointed out, including a glucose-monitoring contact lens that it is developing with Swiss drugmaker Novartis ($NVS). While Google hasn't revealed any projects for mental illnesses, the fact that its life sciences team would launch a "major exploration into mental health … is by itself a significant statement," he added.

"The GLS mission is about creating technology that can help with earlier detection, better prevention, and more effective management of serious health conditions. I am joining the team to explore how this mission can be applied to mental illness," Insel said. "The Google philosophy has been to seek a 10x impact on hard problems. I am looking forward to a 10x challenge in mental health."

Insel brings an impressive resume to the table, including time as co-chair of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) program for neurological research. And Insel has worked with genetics and imaging data, which could come in handy as Google eyes an increasingly lucrative diagnostic market.

"Tom is coming on board to explore how the life sciences team at Google could have an impact on the huge challenges related to understanding, diagnosing, and treating mental illness," a Google spokesperson said, as quoted by Forbes. "We're thrilled that he's joining the team and look forward to sharing more once he has a chance to get up and running."

Meanwhile, Google continues to forge ahead with med tech projects, inking deals with key players to bolster its presence in the industry. In July 2014, the company said it would join forces with Novartis to develop smart contact lenses for diabetes and intraocular medical conditions. In August, Google announced it would team up with Dexcom ($DXCM) to create cheaper, miniaturized glucose monitors that allow patients to check their blood sugar levels on the cloud.

Earlier this month, Novartis CEO Joe Jimenez told Swiss newspaper Le Temps that its smart contact lens project with Google "is progressing well," with plans to test a first prototype of the product for presbyopia, or age-related farsightedness, on humans in 2016. With recent progress and an expanded team, Google's life sciences division could be poised to deliver on its goal of changing the way that diseases are diagnosed and managed.

- here's Insel's statement
- read the Forbes story

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