When I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Daniel Amen — author of “The End of Mental Illness: How Neuroscience Is Transforming Psychiatry and Helping Prevent or Reverse Mood and Anxiety Disorders, ADHD, Addictions, PTSD, Psychosis, Personality Disorders, and More” — several years ago, he told me that psychiatrists are among the few doctors who never see the organ that they regularly work with — one of the reasons he turned his focus to doing brain scans at Amen Clinics. He also emphasizes a statistic that “about every 14 minutes, someone dies by suicide in the United States,” hence the need for him to write this book.
Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness still exists. All too often, people fear the sound of their diagnosis and perhaps even the medications it may entail. Reading up on specific psychological disorders may even seem frightening to some individuals — leaving us wondering if we fit the profile. With a number of anecdotes about the success of his own SPECT electronic imaging scans, Amen offers hope that in the near future, making a diagnosis will be as simple as looking at activity or lack of activity in parts of the brain.
Amen notes that “reframing the discussion from mental health to brain health changes everything. People begin to see their problems as medical, not moral.” Amen also believes that “reframing the discussion to brain health is also more accurate and elevates hope, increases the desire to get help, and increases compliance to make the necessary lifestyle changes.
“Get your brain right, and your mind will follow,” is the general advice Amen spreads out across the pages. As a physician and psychiatrist, he has a lot of practical advice to offer — from basic tips of changing diet and exercise and how to avoid caustic chemicals that can build up in the brain over time, all sensible advice that could improve your own quality of life and consequently benefit your brain’s ability to perform.
While the potential that SPECT scans have to offer seems promising, it produces images at a lower resolution than a standard PET scan — which has led to some criticism about Amen’s work. Only a slim minority of clinics use them anymore, and people like Steven Hyman, the former director of National Institute of Mental Health, advise against them being used to make clinical decisions — a sentiment shared by many neuroscientists who don’t make diagnoses as precise as Amen’s when conducting their own studies.
What Amen suggests in “The End of Mental Illness” isn’t quite where we are right now at this moment in history. Instead, it is what ought to be the goal for where imaging technology will one day take us — when we have more accurate models to better understand regional brain activity up close. Perhaps we are much closer to diagnostics of this kind than we realize, but we aren’t quite there yet.
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