All in Your Head: An Interview with Dr. Daniel Amen

Dr. Daniel Gregory Amen is a renowned psychiatrist, specializing in the treatment of brain disorders. He is the director of Amen Clinics, which revolutionized the use of brain-imaging technology to treat patients, and he is also a New York Times best-selling author of the groundbreaking book “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.”

Daniel AmenAmen Clinics provides medical services for people suffering from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with other neurological disorders, which they study with the aid of single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) — what Amen refers to as brain SPECT scans. In recent years, Amen has performed numerous studies scanning the brains of professional athletes who suffered concussions, and also worked as a post-concussion consultant for the National Football League.

Brain World recently had the opportunity to speak with Amen about his life’s work, his research, and the mission of Amen Clinics.

Brain World: How did you first get interested in the brain?

Daniel Amen: It was quite by accident. I was the top neuroscience student at my medical school — but I really wanted to be a psychiatrist. Talk to people, connect with people, and get involved to learn about their lives. In my second year of medical school, a friend of mine tried to kill herself, and I took her to see a wonderful psychiatrist. I came to realize that by helping her, he didn’t just help her, but also her children and her grandchildren. It really was a profession that could change an entire generation.

When I graduated medical school in 1982, I decided I wanted to be a really good psychiatrist and a writer, because I always felt I had a gift for explaining ideas that are really hard to understand. In 1991, I went to electron-brain SPECT imaging, and it just changed everything in my life. I scanned myself, my mom, my children, and it was really when I fell in love with the brain. I decided that if I were going to help get my patients’ lives better, I would have to start by making their brains better.

BW: What would you say is the overall mission of Amen Clinic?

DA: Our mission is to transform people’s lives by using our work with imaging and natural ways to heal the brain. We do something called Brain SPECT imaging, which looks at blood flow and activity; looks at how the brain works. Scans of the brain show us three things: areas of the brain that work well, areas of the brain that are low in activity, and areas of the brain that are high in activity. We use the scans in combination with detailed clinical histories to better diagnose and come up with treatments for our patients.

BW: Could you give an example?

DA: So we did the world’s largest study on active and retired NFL players, at a time when the NFL was not telling the truth about the long-term brain damage that their players were suffering from. It was really clear from the first patient we scanned, and now we have nearly 200 patients — all of them NFL players, and there’s long-term damage in virtually all of them.

BW: So what can be done?

DA: I’m actually not sure if you can make the game safe — but you can make it safer. You can take the head out of practice, you can always have them on a rehabilitation program. As they are going, they are changing some of the rules, but from a Brain World perspective, all of your readers should know that your brain is soft, about the consistency of somewhere between egg whites and jello. It’s housed in a really hard skull with multiple sharp, bony ridges. It controls your whole life — how you feel, how you act, how you get along with other people. You just can’t get around the physics. When you damage the brain, you damage someone’s life.

BW: Your most-prominent book is “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” — how can you change your brain to change your life?

DA: You can always make your brain worse. You can go get drunk, you can start dropping acid, or methamphetamines, or sit in a mold-filled house, or go to Flint, Michigan, and drink the lead-filled water, and you know that your brain will be worse. So that’s true. Well, it also happens that if you drink clean water, eat healthy food, protect your brain, and sleep right, your brain is going to be better. One of the cool things that we learned is that the brain is malleable. You’re not stuck with the brain you have, you can make it better — and we’ve proved that with our NFL study with follow-up scans on the patients that showed high levels of improvement. I think it’s the most exciting thing in science!

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