Psychiatrist Daniel Amen wanted to know if there was any difference between the brains of normal people and those with deviant behavior, depression and drug addiction.
“We will never know until we take a look,” he said. He complained that psychiatrists never looked at the brains of patients, unlike neurologists, cardiologists, orthopedic surgeons and other medical practitioners.
I came across the work of Dr. Amen on YouTube. I was intrigued by the title, “What a Psychiatrist Learned From 87,000 Brain Scans.” That’s a lot of brain scans, I thought. Surely a pattern would emerge from so many brains.
“Early on, our imaging work taught us very important lessons,” said Dr. Amen. “Depression and addiction are not simple conditions of the brain.
“For example, here are 12 patients diagnosed to be suffering from depression. They have similar symptoms. Yet they have radically different activity in the brain. One had little activity in the brain, the other one had high activity.”
He insists that “we have to look at the individual brains, not clusters of symptoms. How will you know what to do with them unless you look?”
Dr. Amen said that “American soldiers who saw action in Afghanistan and other war-torn areas, and coming back with mental and emotional problems, have to be addressed in a special way. They cannot be treated the same way as others with similar symptoms.”
He said they have scanned the brains of criminals, murderers, prostitutes, and even serial killers.
Dr. Amen cited the case of his 9-year-old nephew, Andrew, who was thrown out of school for violent behavior. He was always mad with everybody but could not explain why he was angry all the time. His parents saw two drawings in his room: one of himself hanging on a tree, the other of himself shooting at somebody.
Dr. Amen insisted that a brain scan be done. The result revealed a big tumor (or cyst) on the left temporal lobe of his brain. Dr. Amen said he has always associated the left temporal lobe with violent behavior. He wanted to have the tumor removed, but no neurosurgeon was willing to do it until, they found one who successfully separated Siamese twins whose two heads were connected.
After undergoing successful brain surgery, Andrew began to smile and go back to his normal behavior. Eighteen years later he was gainfully employed. If he had been treated in the traditional psychiatric way—with sedatives, tranquilizers, etc.—he probably would not have overcome his violent behavior.
Dr. Amen asked, “ What if we rehabilitate these people’s brains rather than isolate them in a toxic environment? We can save a lot of money by making these people function normally.
“One of the things my colleagues and I have learned after 22 years and over 85,000 brain scans, is that we can change people by rehabilitating their brains. We can make their brains better and we can prove it.”
Not everybody agrees with Dr. Amen’s method. His critics in the psychiatric community believe that brain scans should not be made a routine clinical practice.
But this is to be expected. Any truly new and original idea is usually opposed when it is first proposed.