Like most people, you may not wonder why almost all psychiatrists never look at the organ they treat.
But one man has.
He’s Daniel G. Amen MD, clinical neuroscientist, board certified psychiatrist, brain imaging expert, nine-time New York Times best-selling author and founder of the Amen Clinics.
And his curiosity makes perfect sense if you think about it.
Cardiologists look, neurologists look, and orthopedic doctors look. In fact, virtually every other medical specialist looks at an image of the area they are treating. Yet, amazingly, psychiatrists look for symptom clusters and then they, well…guess.
Dr. Amen has been trying to change that approach for over 25 years with his forward-thinking and innovative practice using SPECT imaging–Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography–to treat patients at the Amen Clinics.
SPECT is a nuclear medicine study that looks at blood flow and activity, and how the brain works. It reveals three things about the brain–good activity, too little or too much—and plays an important role in the diagnosis and overall treatment process Dr. Amen uses at his clinics.
Dr. Amen was among the first physicians to begin using SPECT in a clinical setting to generate critically important information about a patient’s brain activity. He and his colleagues went on to build the world’s largest database of brain scans related to behavior—nearly 100,000 scans on patients from 111 countries around the world.
The positive results and outcomes keep pouring in and clearly show that illnesses such as ADD, depression, anxiety and addiction can be helped significantly with a brain-health program that starts by “looking.”
According to Dr. Amen, looking at the brain is important because many of these issues are not singular or simple disorders in the brain. There are multiple types.
For example, two patients diagnosed with major depression can present brain scans that look very different. One might have low brain activity and the other could show elevated activity. Although the diagnoses are the same, these brains need different treatment protocols.
In this brief but power-packed TEDx talk, Dr. Amen shares his passion for psychiatry and how SPECT imaging combined with a rigorous brain-health program can reverse brain damage and positively impact generations to come in a family.
These results have shown that you are not stuck with the brain you have – brain health can be improved.
A former army x-ray technician, Dr. Amen first learned about SPECT imaging at a medical lecture in 1991.
It was then that Dr. Amen’s love of medical imaging and psychiatry came together and ignited a passion that changed his life—and the lives of thousands of others.
But his innovative approach has had its critics.
For years researchers have been complaining that a clinical psychiatrist like Dr. Amen should not be doing scans. They argue that brain imagery should be used exclusively by researchers in academia.
Dr. Amen disagrees, of course.
Here’s how he puts it: “Without imaging, psychiatrists then and, even today, make diagnoses like they did for Abraham Lincoln in 1840–by talking to people and looking for symptom clusters.”
With the diagnostic information revealed in a SPECT scan, Dr. Amen and his colleagues can tailor treatment to individual brains, not clusters of symptoms.
Traumatic Brain Injury and Psychiatric Illness
One of the most significant findings of the Amen Clinics imaging work is that mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major cause of psychiatric illness. Brain injuries often go undetected by psychiatrists who mostly focus on the problems presented by the patient—things like: temper, anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Because psychiatrists never look at the brain, they never know.
TBI has far-reaching implications when it comes to mental health and social welfare concerns.
It’s not a shock that researchers have found that undiagnosed brain injuries are a major cause of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, panic attacks, ADHD and suicide.
That connection has prompted judges and defense attorneys to seek help from Dr. Amen to understand criminal behavior. To date, the Amen Clinics have scanned over 500 convicted felons, including 90 murderers. The work produced two important findings: 1) People who do bad things often have trouble brains; and 2) Many of these brains could be rehabilitated!
Imagine if our society evaluated and treated troubled brains rather than simply warehousing them in toxic, stressful environments?
When Dr. Amen and his colleagues performed the first and largest study on active and retired NFL players, the results showed high levels of brain damage. This came at a time when the NFL was still maintaining that they didn’t know if playing football causes long-term brain damage.
Dr. Amen put the players on his brain-smart program and demonstrated that 80 percent of them could improve in the areas of a blood flow, memory, and mood.
That study provided even more compelling evidence that you are not stuck with the brain you have and you can make it better on a brain-healthy program like the one used at the Amen Clinics.
Dr. Amen’s favorite story that clearly demonstrates the power of “looking” at the brain comes from a 9-year-old boy named Andrew who attacked a little girl on a baseball field for no apparent reason.
At the time, Andrew was drawing pictures of himself hanging from a tree and shooting other children. He was Columbine and Sandy Hook waiting to happen.
Most psychiatrists would have medicated Andrew as they did Eric Harris and the other mass shooters before they committed their horrific crimes that day.
But SPECT imaging taught Dr. Amen that he should look at Andrew’s brain and not simply guess at a treatment plan.
It’s a good thing he did.
Andrew’s SPECT scan showed a cyst the size of a golf ball lodged in his brain’s temporal lobe. A medication or therapy would never have helped Andrew.
When the cyst was removed, his behavior completely went back to normal and he became the sweet, loving boy hiding under the negative behavior.
Andrew happens to be Dr. Amen’s nephew. Now, more than 18 years later, he owns his own home, is employed, and lives a full, brain-healthy life.
And it’s all because someone bothered to look at his brain. He has been a better son and will be a better husband, father and grandfather down the road.
That poignant story is one of the chief reasons Dr. Amen continues to innovate and change the practice of psychiatry.
“When you have the privilege changing someone’s brain, you not only change his or her life, you have the opportunity to change generations to come.”
– Daniel G. Amen, MD
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