NIMH Releases Strategic Plan for Research

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently released its Strategic Plan for Research which will guide the Institute’s research priorities over the next five years, from basic science of the brain and behavior, to public health impact.  This plan updates the objectives of the 2008 strategic plan. Its aim is to balance the need for long-term investments in basic research with urgent medical health needs.

The plan revised the original four high-level strategic objectives, providing a “broad roadmap” for NIMH’s research priority.  Each objective also includes associated research priorities:

  1. Define the mechanisms of complex behaviors.
    • Describe the molecules, cells, and neural circuits associated with complex behaviors.
    • Identify the genomic and non-genomic factors associated with mental illnesses.
    • Map the connectomes for mental illnesses.
  1. Chart mental illness trajectories to determine when, where, and how to intervene.
    • Characterize the developmental trajectories of brain maturation and dimensions of behavior to understand the roots of mental illnesses across diverse populations.
    • Identify clinically useful biomarkers and behavioral indicators that predict change across the trajectory of illness.
  1. Strive for prevention and cures.
    • Develop new treatments based on discoveries in genomics, neuroscience, and behavioral science.
    • Develop ways to tailor existing and new interventions to optimize outcomes.
    • Test interventions for effectiveness in community practice settings.
  1. Strengthen the public health impact of NIMH-supported research.
    • Improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing mental health services through research.
    • Establish research-practice partnerships to improve dissemination, implementation, and continuous improvement of evidence-based mental health services.
    • Develop innovative service delivery models to improve dramatically the outcomes of mental health services received in diverse communities and populations.
    • Develop new capacity for research that evaluates the public health impact of mental health services innovations.

The plan’s introduction notes that a number of other strategic plans informed the Institute’s planning and include more detail on specific topics, including the National Research Action Plan  (NRAP) addressing post-traumatic stress; the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder ResearchA Prioritized Research Agenda for Suicide Prevention: An Action Plan to Save Lives , a collaboration with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention; and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Working Group Report.

The agency also notes its “substantial investment in supporting AIDS research,” which is guided by a NIH-wide Strategic Plan coordinated through the NIH Office of AIDS Research.  Accordingly, it is noted that research on the mental health aspects of AIDS is not addressed in the current plan.

Cross-Cutting Themes

There are also cross-cutting themes associated with the plan’s objectives.  These themes include:  transforming diagnostics, accelerating therapies, the role of environment, digital enterprise, transforming the trajectory of mental illness through preemptive medicine, global mental health, mental health disparities, partnerships, and investing in the future.

In the new Strategic Plan for Research, the Institute encourages the submission of investigator-initiated applications, the so-called R01 applications, and responses to Funding Opportunity Announcements and/or Requests for Applications that are aligned with the new plan.  NIMH Director Thomas Insel acknowledges that some scientists reject the concept of “directed science,” believing that science rarely follows a plan.  NIMH, however, recognizes the research community’s need for more detailed guidance on specifics encompassed by the strategies in this plan.  The Strategic Research Priorities describe areas of specific interest.  According to the document, this information will be updated periodically to represent the Institute’s most current interests.

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