By Hank Campbell
May 3rd 2013

( NIMH is replacing the DSM )

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is distancing itself from the the American Psychiatric Association and its upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

While they acknowledge that the goal of DSM “is to provide a common language for describing psychopathology” they are no longer convinced that approach has value if we are going to solve 21st century neuroscience problems.  It is, paraphrasing the statement  of Thomas R. Insel, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, more of a dictionary than a manual.  He uses the term “Bible” instead of ‘manual’ but I would have used ‘glossary’ rather than ‘dictionary’.

Insel pulls no punches in his statement on why they are not going to fund things based on DSM criteria any more.

“The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure.”

This is a charge leveled at psychology as well, and the field in general, but psychiatry takes the biggest hits, because they are supposed to be the most evidence-based. Unlike psychology, psychiatrists have to be M.D.s first. Writing in The New Yorker, Gary Greenberg tries to tackle why neuroscience hasn’t kept pace with medicine, much less science, writing rather nicely that “it’s not entirely clear that psychiatrists want a solution to the problem.”

Insel is more blunt. “DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever.”

Basically, he says DSM is stuck in the past.

Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.

Patients with mental disorders deserve better.

NIMH is leaving the past behind. In the past, Insel notes, they would reject a biomarker that did not match a DSM category. Now they instead want to collect how all data – genetic, imaging, physiologic and cognitive – cluster, and not just how symptoms do.  They call it the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project.

“That is why NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.,” he wrote, and that means funding applicants are going to have to adjust to the 21st century.

The APA may be outraged, and certainly some DSM defenders, but I predict people in neuroscience who want to really do science and get NIMH funding are relieved that they are not going to have to cater to a document everyone seems to know was always flawed.