July 22, 2005

Pigeons vs. People? by EF Torrey



By E. Fuller Torrey

On June 24, Congressman Randy Neugebauer successfully attached an
amendment to the 2006 appropriations bill for the National Institute of Mental Health. The amendment, which passed the House by voice vote, prohibits the use of federal funds for two NIMH research studies. One study, which has cost more than $1.5 million over 15 years, examines how pigeons classify objects into categories. The other, which has cost $750,000 over five years, assesses the effect of self-esteem of newlyweds on their marriage.

As Rep. Neugebauer made clear, he is not opposing these studies because he is against pigeons or marriage but rather because they are examples of NIMH's failure to focus research resources on what should be its foremost priority -- severe mental illnesses. Contrary to rumor, governmental coffers are not bottomless; money spent examining pigeons and marriage means less research on schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, autism, etc. Three studies in recent years have documented NIMH's failure to prioritize research for severe mental illnesses. Indeed, a 2003 study that I co-authored concluded that only one in 17 NIMH research awards was "clinically relevant" insofar as anyone currently suffering from a severe mental illness had any likelihood of benefiting from it.

Finding examples of egregious NIMH research awards is not difficult. In any given year, NIMH supports between 10 and 20 studies of pigeons, and the NIMH research portfolio bulges with grants to examine marriage, adolescence, happiness and other aspects of human behavior. Now in its 19th year and at a total cost of almost $2 million, one noteworthy award fuels the quest to determine why male Japanese quails are attracted to female Japanese quails. In 1988, the grant received one of Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards, yet it has been continuously funded ever since.

Some of these research projects have merit and could get the funding they need from a more appropriate source. For instance, the National Science Foundation was created to fund basic research, such as how pigeons think. And it is the mission of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to address issues of adolescence and marriage.

NIMH's charge is research on severe psychiatric disorders. Thus, when NIMH fails to do its job, we do not know whether bipolar disorder is increasing in children, whether SSRI antidepressants really cause suicides, or how to find more effective drugs for treating schizophrenia. On economic grounds alone, NIMH's failure to do more research on severe mental illnesses is foolish; the annual cost of these illnesses is now more than $40 billion in federal Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, and SSDI funds and is rising rapidly.

Rep. Neugebauer has been publicly criticized for second-guessing the NIMH peer-review process, which has been called the "gold standard" in research evaluation. "Gilt-edged" is a more appropriate term; anyone who has sat on an NIMH review panel is aware that cronyism and scientific correctness are rampant. And when you pack the review committee with pigeon researchers, more pigeon research is funded. The priorities of NIMH have become distorted over many years. Dr. Thomas Insel, current NIMH director, is working diligently to correct these priorities but is meeting with major opposition, both from within NIMH and from special interest groups without.

Rep. Neugebauer should be commended for focusing congressional attention on a failing federal research program. It is both fiscally and scientifically responsible to do so. If other members of Congress emulated him, we would have better federal programs and a lower federal deficit. Congress was not created to simply write checks but rather to also provide oversight.


Dr. Torrey is president of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va. (www.psychlaws.org), a national nonprofit organization working to eliminate barriers to treatment of severe mental illness.


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