Opinion Conversations on the science of autism research.

Funding agency revamps strategy for mental health research

by  /  17 April 2015


The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is updating its funding strategy to push the translation of advances in genomics and information technology into therapies. The new five-year plan, announced late last month, balances basic research goals with the urgent need for treatments, access to services and information about environmental risk factors.

The revamped plan should resonate with autism researchers. Although they have made major strides over the past few years in identifying genes tied to autism, there are still no drugs approved to treat the disorder’s core symptoms. Behavioral interventions can help people with autism learn social and communication skills. But access to these therapies is limited, particularly for adults.

With a relatively stable stash of research dollars — a little over $1 billion — to dole out each year, the NIMH is recognizing the need for both short- and long-term investments.

“The unavoidable tension between patients’ urgent needs today and the promise of basic sci­ence progress on the horizon is daunting and particularly critical with limited funds,” NIMH director Thomas Insel wrote in an official statement.

The plan outlines four broad objectives for mental health research: uncover the origins of complex behavior, track changes in brain disorders across time, improve treatments and boost the public health impact of research findings.

The last target represents the biggest change from the previous plan, drafted in 2008, which emphasized basic and clinical research more than public well-being. The new plan supports creative ways to improve access to services and assess their real-world impact. It cites the development of ‘social prosthetics’ — wearable devices that can help people with autism interpret social-emotional cues — as an example of money well spent.

The new proposal also encourages work to identify environmental risk factors, which have been tricky to pin down in autism. “While the tools of genomics and neuroscience now permit rapid progress, equivalent tools and paradigms to study environmental influences are just being developed,” Insel said in his statement. “Over this next five-year period, we can expect this new approach to environmental factors.”

The plan comes amid a plateau in funding for autism research. Luckily, the picture is about to brighten. The Combating Autism Act — rebranded by President Obama last year as the Autism CARES Act — is designed to lead to better therapies and greater access to them, and will inject $3 billion into autism research and services by 2019.