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NIMH Director Josh Gordon Discusses Research Challenges, Opportunities

200 turn out to hear Gordon, Duke faculty speak at 2019 Symposium

More than 200 students, faculty, trainees, and staff attended the 2019 DIBS Distinguished Lecture & Symposium on Feb. 20. The theme: From Brain Circuits to Behavior: How Technology is Transforming the Science of Mental Health.

Dr. Joshua A. Gordon delivered the keynote address after presentations by Duke faculty Kafui Dzirasa, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, and David Carlson, Civil Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Alison Adcock, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience; and Guillermo Sapiro, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering. 

Gordon identified the challenges facing the mental health research community, including the limited efficacy of current treatments and the high rate of suicide in the U.S. What excites him about his job, though, are the many opportunities in which progress is being made. 

"We are very, very close to biomarkers," Gordon said, which will help make it possible for people with depression to get tailored, more effective treatments. He also noted evidence-based best practices around preventing suicide. "One answer that works, at least in emergency departments, is that you've got to ask everyone who comes in if they're thinking of hurting themselves," he said yes.

Another promising practice is for those who say they are having such thoughts, to get them to agree to having a masters-level provider call them three times a year." Both measures reduce the risk of suicide, he noted, and are cost-effective in terms of time and other resources. Studies are ongoing regarding whether a similar approach might work in the primary care setting. Gordon closed his remarks with the NIMH mission: to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through basic and clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure.

Prior to addressing the conference, Gordon met with small groups of faculty, then with graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and other small groups over lunch. His advised the trainee group to:

  • Do what you love
  • Be flexible
  • Never be afraid of trying something new--even math, especially how to work with large datasets in the cloud

Winners of the symposium's graduate student/postdoc/trainee poster contest were announced at the end of the event: Elena Tenenbaum, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Best Clinical Poster; Aaron Reuben, Psychology & Neuroscience, Best Basic Science/Human Subjects Poster; and Amanda Lewis, Neurobiology, Best Basic Science/Cellular & Molecular Poster.