“The idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance is nonsense.” This is probably not the message you’d expect to come from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) director Dr. Tom Insel, but this is exactly what he told me along with 11 other MD/PhD students gathered for the NIMH MD/PhD Student Conference in San Francisco. The NIMH put together this conference, which also included talks from prominent psychiatrist-scientists Dr. Vikas Sohal (UCSF), Dr. Hanna Stevens (Yale), Dr. Amit Etkin (Stanford), and Dr. Matthew State (UCSF), in order to attract MD/PhD students to the field of psychiatry. According to Dr. Insel, views that the brain is bag of chemicals that can be treated by pouring serotonin or dopamine into it* are outdated and are holding the field of psychiatry back. Advances in basic neuroscience research have opened avenues with tremendous potential for improving mental health treatment, but a new generation of psychiatrist-scientists is needed to translate new findings into clinical treatments. Indeed we are in desperate need for new treatments for psychiatric disorders. Nearly 40,000 people commit suicide each year and this number has remained about level for several decades (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm). Neuropsychiatric disorders also a leading cause of disability affected life years (http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1201534).
I feel very fortunate to have received a travel award to attend the Student Conference as well as the Molecular Psychiatry conference that was also held that weekend. I had never been to a small and intimate conference like this one, my only previous experience with conferences being the neuroscience Hajj that is SfN. It was incredible to not only hear talks from some of the biggest names in neuroscience but also discuss their science and my own research interests with them. Possibly even more exciting for me was that so many of these researchers made me feel like a peer and colleague. As much fun as hanging out in conference rooms and talking about genomics and neurocircuits can be, the best part of the experience was meeting the 11 other travel awardees. For a couple of us, it was actually a reunion of sorts, as we had previously met on the interview trail. My roommate at the conference, Robert Corty (now at UNC), had previously met at the UAB MSTP second look visit. It was great catching up with old acquaintances and forging new friendships, unsurprisingly 11 MD/PhD students who all study neuroscience have quite a bit to talk (and argue) about. The world of science is a small community and I am sure I will see my new friends again at future conferences and symposia, and perhaps some of us may even train together during residency. Life in graduate school can be painfully difficult, and at times you feel like you’re spinning your wheels but going nowhere, however experiences like this remind you of why you fell in love with science in the first place and reignite your passion for your field.
-Joshua Cohen (GS-2)