John M. Talmadge, M.D.

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Brain Scan Scams: Amen!

At least once a week I am asked about neuroscience and brain scans, usually by someone baffled by a psychiatric problem. I addressed "brain scams" in a blog post here back in April, and I've found another well-done article from The Washington Post describing the fame and the quackery of Dr. Daniel Amen, known for his self-produced PBS television shows and his many pseudoscientific books. Dr. Amen, who lives in a $4M home in California, is the poster child for what is worst in psychiatry. Although Amen has his admirers, the leaders of American psychiatry are not among his fans. The following paragraphs are excerpted and edited from the Washington Post article. The bottom line is this: There are situations, including some brain injuries, where a brain scan can be helpful in making a diagnosis. Brain scans today, however, cannot diagnose psychiatric disorders; nor do these expensive scans change the course of proper psychiatric care.

What the reader should understand is that Dr. Amen, like many promoters of fraudulent "cures," appeals to people who are vulnerable to snake-oil promotions and great salesmanship. He has even hornswoggled fellow entrepreneurial genius Rick Warren, best known for The Purpose Driven Life, and pastor of the Saddleback Church in California. Warren designated Amen as official guru for health and nutrition at his mega-church.

Few top researchers and scientists say that SPECT is anything but a research tool of limited clinical use in identifying strokes, brain injuries and the like. It is helpful in group studies, to say broad things about groups of patients, but not specific things about individual patients. And, researchers say, SPECT has largely since been surpassed by technologies such as PET and functional MRIs, which give images of far greater clarity. It’s no longer viewed as cutting edge.

The APA first debunked many of Amen’s SPECT claims in a 2005 report. In 2008, Carlat, the Tufts professor and author, went to California to test Amen’s clinic. He then wrote, in Wired Magazine, that the black-clad Amen looked “more like a Miami maitre d’ than a psychiatrist,” that the SPECT scan was “spectacularly meaningless” and that Amen’s analysis of it reminded him of a “shrewd palm reader.”

In 2010, Thomas Insel, director of the NIMH, wrote on his blog that while the technology “might be playing in prime time on some TV infomercials, brain-imaging experts say we’re not quite there yet.” Earlier this year, Anissa Abi-Dargham, a highly regarded professor of clinical psychiatry and radiology at Columbia who has done extensive work with brain imaging, spoke at an APA symposium on the limits of SPECT. She listened to Amen’s hour-long lecture there. Reached by phone recently, she said: “Had I known what this was, I would have never agreed to be part of it. It was not a scientific debate. It was propaganda for his clinics.”

No major research institution takes his SPECT work seriously, none regards him as “the number one neuroscience guy,” and his revelations, which he presents to rapt audiences as dispatches from the front ranks of science, make the top tier of scientists roll their eyes or get very angry. “In my opinion, what he’s doing is the modern equivalent of phrenology,” says Jeffrey Lieberman, APA presidentelect, author of the textbook “Psychiatry” and chairman of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. (Phrenology was the pseudoscience, popular in the early 19th century, that said the mind was determined by the shape of the skull, particularly its bumps.) “The claims he makes are not supported by reliable science, and one has to be skeptical about his motivation.” “I think you have a vulnerable patient population that doesn’t know any better,” says M. Elizabeth Oates, chair of the Commission on Nuclear Medicine, Board of Chancellors at the American College of Radiology, and chair of the department of radiology at the University of Kentucky.

“A sham,” says Martha J. Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania, summing up her thoughts on one of Amen’s most recent scientific papers. “I guess we’re all amateurs except for him,” says Helen Mayberg, a psychiatry, neurology and radiology professor at Emory School of Medicine and one of the most respected researchers into depression and brain scanning. “He’s making claims that are outrageous and not supported by any research.” “I can’t imagine clinical decisions being guided by an imaging test,” says Steven E. Hyman, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health and current director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The APA, in fact, has twice issued papers that dispute “claims being made that brain imaging technology ... was useful for making a clinical diagnosis and for helping in treatment selections.” The most recent paper was the work of 12 doctors who spent three years assessing the latest research. The summary: “There are currently no brain imaging biomarkers that are currently clinically useful for any diagnostic category in psychiatry.”

Four years ago, Robert Burton, the author and former associate chief of the department of neurosciences at the University of California at Mount Zion Hospital, wrote a harsh article on about Amen’s work. The headline was “Brain Scam.” When recently told that Amen was still in business and grossed $20 million last year, Burton asked for the dollar figure to be repeated. “Oh, my God,” he said. “Just oh, my God. At some point this gets to be obscene — that’s just my bias — but oh, my God.”

To read the entire article from The Washington Post, click here.

In 2010, concerns about Dr. Amen and the "brain scam industry" reached a boiling point. In The American Journal of Psychiatry, my colleague Dr. Bryon Adinoff wrote the following:

"Dr. Amen claims that numerous psychiatric illnesses can be diagnosed and treatments prescribed based on resting single photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) images. Dr. Leuchter correctly points out the absence of empirical data to support the claims of Dr. Amen. Several years ago, following conversations with Dr. Amen on how to address such concerns, the Brain Imaging Council of the Society of Nuclear Medicine offered Dr. Amen the opportunity to submit his analyses of a blinded set of SPECT scans (to have been prepared by the Brain Imaging Council) to determine how effective his technique is at correctly diagnosing subjects. Although this proposed study could have provided support for his approach, the offer was declined. Nevertheless, for more than two decades, Dr. Amen has persisted in using scientifically unfounded claims to diagnose and treat patients (over 45,000 by his own count).

"There are several dangers to patients that can accrue from this approach: 1) patients (including children) are administered a radioactive isotope without sound clinical rationale; 2) patients pursue treatments contingent upon an interpretation of a SPECT image that lacks empirical support; and 3) based on a presumed diagnosis provided by Dr. Amen's clinics, patients are guided toward treatment that may detract them from clinically sound treatments.

"Just as serious is the danger to our field. It is likely that, within the next decade, Dr. Amen's claims will be realized in that psychiatrists will enjoy the ability to diagnose and prescribe treatments based, in part, upon neuroimaging findings. Unfortunately, if previously led astray by unsupported claims, patients and their doctors may be less inclined to utilize scientifically proven approaches once these are shown in the peer-reviewed literature to be effective.

"It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to monitor and regulate our field. We encourage physicians to remain vigilant of unproven approaches practiced by our peers and to immediately report these trespasses to their state medical boards."