Dr. Daniel Amen on Taking a Closer Look At the Brain

SPECT scans: in the four surface views on the left, the less active regions of the brain show up as holes or dents. The scans on the right show the most active 15 percent of the brain in red and white.

“I belong to the only group of doctors that never looks at the organ they treat,” says Dr. Daniel Amen. He is, of course, referring to psychiatrists, and the organ is, of course, the brain.

Different from functional MRIs which provide pictures of the brain, SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) imaging looks at how the brain functions. Uncovering the level of brain activity is essential to fully understanding a person’s problems. Utilizing a comprehensive assessment which includes imaging, targeted lab studies, and spiritual assessment (for example, ”Why did you get up this morning? What does your life mean?”), Amen and his team seek to find natural ways to heal the brain such as hypnosis, biofeedback, relaxation therapy, and supplements along with more standard clinical practices.

Over the course of two decades, the Amen Clinics spanning the United States have performed and evaluated over 73,000 brain SPECT scans, compiling the world’s largest database of brain scans for behavioral problems. The use of brain SPECT imaging in clinical practice and research has proven to impact the accuracy of diagnosis and the ability to target effective treatments, even for patients who have tried and failed prior treatment. In a six-month outcome study with 500 Amen Clinics’ patients of varying ages and locations, 75 percent showed significant improvement in their condition and 85 percent reported improved quality of life after implementing their personalized protocols.

We learned from Amen that as your weight goes up, your brain size goes down (so pay attention to your diet), six hours of sleep a night is protocol, and the cardinal rule is “Avoid anything that hurts the brain.” Decisions should be made by asking, “Is this good for my brain?” “Or bad for my brain?” (Parents that includes teenage boxing and football.) “I love you with all my heart” should be “I love you with all my brain,” except it doesn’t sound as romantic.

Amen has devoted a large part of his practice to the rehabilitation of professional football players and has worked to reverse the stigma that comes from brain disorders. His research has demonstrated high levels of brain damage in players, with the possibility of significant recovery for many with the principles that underlie his work.

For instance, by boosting the cognitive reserve through the simple action of taking a multivitamin and fish oil supplement, it was found that the players can potentially increase their ability to recover from injury even while playing the sport. The SPECT brain scans breaks denial, decreases stigma, and increases compliance. In his brief stint on “Celebrity Rehab,” Amen was able to convince the iconoclastic basketball player Dennis Rodman that after seeing a SPECT image of his brain, he had a problem and needed help.

In providing the means for accurate diagnosis, the brain SPECT imaging (though costly) saves money in the end and brings more attention and care to disorders by acknowledging them as medical and not moral. The list of areas addressed by the Amen Clinics is extensive:

  • Complex or treatment resistant conditions
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Complex substance abuse and addictions
  • Cognitive decline and dementia risk
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Violent or suicidal behaviors
  • Seizure disorders
  • Toxicity and brain infections
  • Complex psychiatric disorders, including ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

Daniel Amen is a physician, double-board certified psychiatrist, teacher, and author. For more information on the Amen Clinics, please visit AmenClinics.com.

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