Critic: Brain Research Misdirected

National Institutes of Mental Health Accused of Wasting Money

The federal government is wasting billions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for research into mental illness, says pioneering brain researcher Dr. E. Fuller Torrey.

An ardent critic of of the National Institutes of Mental Health, Torry makes his claim and mocks some NIMH projects, such as studying the brain of pigeons, in an interview with Morley Safer to be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

"Schizophrenia and manic depressive illness alone cost the federal government about $40 billion a year," he says, referring to the burden mental illness puts on a wide variety of social services. "Yet, the part of the federal government that is supposed to be doing research on these diseases has, by and large, ignored them."

Torrey says the government agency should instead focus directly on finding better treatment for severe mental illness.

Steven Hyman, the former director of the NIMH, tells Safer that some of the money his agency gets is assigned, by law, for areas other than severe mental illness. He also argues that the big picture is what's important.

"Fuller's focus on the most severe is like saying to the heart institute that they can only study heart attacks, but not cholesterol or high blood pressure," he says. "I'm in the business of making sure people with mental illness get the best science for them."

Torrey, whose sister is severely schizophrenic, has spent his entire career railing against the way the government spends its mental health research dollars. He's also criticizes the field of psychiatry for dealing mainly with "problems of living" rather than severe mental illness.

"I think a lot of the resources of psychiatry… should be going to people with severe mental illness…[not] …why is your third wife divorcing you or why were you passed over for office chief?" he tells Safer. "I'm not saying those are not problems."

When not tilting against the mental health bureaucracy, Torrey heads up the Stanley Foundation for Brain Research, where he directly studies severe mental illness.

Torrey caused a furor in the early 1970s when he argued that schizophrenia was a disease of the brain and not a condition caused by family behavior – a theory dismissed by most psychiatrists at the time. His view proved to be correct.