The range of [Thomas R. Insel]'s interests does not mean, however, that the institute's focus is to become diffuse. Just the opposite. Insel's recent work has focused on basic questions about brain biology and the influence of genes on behavior. The decision to appoint him director seems to be a clear statement about where psychiatry is headed: Both Insel and his field have spent the past quarter- century moving steadily away from psychoanalysis and the legacy of Sigmund Freud, and increasingly into the arms of neuroscience.
Insel's research on voles, a species of mammals similar to mice, received much attention in 1999. Insel identified a family of neuropeptides -- chemicals in the brain found in species from humans to invertebrates. Brain receptors for these chemicals are found in different parts of the brain in different species. Insel found that among voles, the placement of these receptors determined whether the voles were monogamous.
The discovery sparked tremendous journalistic interest around the world, with several reports immediately drawing the irresistible -- but wrong -- conclusion that Insel had discovered a "cure" for infidelity in humans. Insel and other scientists tried to point out that the behavior of human beings is considerably more complicated than that of voles, with culture and the environment playing at least as important a role in the development of personality as brain structures do. The scientists said that, unlike voles, humans don't seem to have the receptors scattered in a wide range of brain locations and that, in any case, monogamy in voles is less related to sex and more to a commitment to raise offspring.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.