The Dark Side of Diagnosis by Brain Scan

von freakoutcrazy

by neurocritic

Daniel Amen: Pioneer or profiteer?: Psychiatrist Daniel Amen uses brain scans to diagnose mental illness. Most peers say that’s bonkers.

Right on the heels of a Molecular Psychiatry paper that asked, „Why has it taken so long for biological psychiatry to develop clinical tests and what to do about it?“ (Kapur et al., 2012) comes this provocatively titled article in the Washington Post about neurohuckster Dr. Daniel Amen and his miraculous SPECT scans:

Daniel Amen is the most popular psychiatrist in America. To most researchers and scientists, that’s a very bad thing.By , Published: August 9.NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Daniel Amen is, by almost any measure, the most popular psychiatrist in America.. . .He has arisen, like a modern-day American myth, from the fields northeast of San Francisco, where he ran a small-town clinic, to become the creator, chairman and CEO of the Amen Clinics, an empire that includes a string of psychiatric practices, a line of nutritional supplements, book publishing, DVD sales, and television and speaking engagements.. . .Amen’s career is very troubling, for one of two things must be true.One, Daniel Gregory Amen, born in 1954 in Encino, Calif., son of Lebanese immigrants, is 20 years ahead of virtually the entire psychiatric field (he says about three dozen other clinics use SPECT scans, but few as profusely as he does), and the establishment has failed to recognize a historic breakthrough.Or, two, the man has grown fabulously wealthy — he lives in a $4.8 million mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean — by selling patients a high-priced service that has little scientific validity, yet no regulatory body has made a move to stop him.

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a relatively inexpensive cousin of PET scanning (positron emission tomography) with lower spatial resolution.1 There is no peer reviewed literature that establishes SPECT as a reliable method of diagnosing psychiatric disorders.

Amen is well-known to regular PBS viewers, because his informercial „Change Your Brain, Change Your Life“ [and others] is on regular rotation during fund raisers.2 In a critical piece by Robert Burton, one neuroimaging expert was quoted as saying:

„SPECT scans are not sufficiently sensitive or specific to be useful in the diagnosis of A.D.,“ neurologist Michael Greicius , who runs the Stanford University memory clinic, and has a special interest in the use of functional brain imaging in the diagnosis of A.D., tells me. „The PBS airing of Amen’s program provides a stamp of scientific validity to work which has no scientific validity.“

In his Washington Post article, author Neely Tucker assembled an impressive list of naysayers:

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 president-elect, 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.

But wait! Didn’t The Neurocritic just write a post that expressed some degree of optimism about the prospect of a „stratified psychiatry“ of phenotypic or genotypic subtypes at some unspecified future date?

But beware! This is not the same thing as using a SPECT scan to devise a treatment plan. In his NIMH Director’s Blog, Dr. Thomas Insel singles out Amen and warns, Brain Scans – Not Quite Ready for Prime Time.

Where Are the Clinical Tests for Psychiatric Disorders?

In their paper, Kapur, Phillips, and Insel (2012) were careful to distinguish their projections for the future from diagnostic tests:3

The prospects of ‘diagnostic tests’ for DSM entities remain distant for reasons articulated above, and it seems unlikely that we will replace the 300-disorder taxonomy of the DSM-5 with an alternative biologically based classification system anytime soon. Therefore the real opportunity for psychiatry is to use the emerging advances in genetics, molecular biology, imaging and cognitive science to supplement, rather than replace, the symptom-driven diagnosis.

Dr. Amen is not so circumspect, in fact he’s rather bullish:

He says he has taught himself — by scanning 45,000 people a total of 70,000 times — to apply SPECT, alongside clinical evaluations, as a diagnostic tool in 90 percent of his patients. The brain activity he says he sees in these scans — areas of high and low activity — allows him to target those areas with specific treatments and medication, he says. A full initial session, including two scans, costs about $3,500. Amen says this method has helped him identify new subtypes of anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder, categories far more specific than even the forthcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the benchmark of the field. This is heady stuff — using brain imaging to find biomarkers for mental illnesses has been the great hope of psychiatry for at least two decades…

And what are those treatments and medications? Exercise, healthy diet, supplements from his product line [e.g., Serotonin Mood Support], and prescription refills in some cases.

„Due to overwhelming popularity we are now offering the Brain on Joy Bar by the case (18 bars).“

Am I blue, Dr. Amen?

The SPECT scans often seem to be used as either a scare tactic or a form of reassurance:

Amen’s first scan patient, back in the early 1990s, was Sandy.

She was 40, had ADD and had tried to kill herself the night before their initial meeting. In his telling — it is his Genesis story, and he has told it many times — the resulting scan showed a precipitous drop in activity in her prefrontal cortex, the brain’s decision-making center, when she tried to concentrate.When he showed her the scan, she wept. “You mean it’s not my fault?”Realizing it was a “biological, not moral” problem, she accepted the diagnosis, took her medications and was greatly helped.“I thought, ‘Whoa. Pictures matter. You get great compliance,’ ” Amen says.

Another patient said, “The results [of the scan] were a little disconcerting, but I’m glad to have it.”

And here’s Amen’s colleague Earl Henslin: “If at all possible, I’m motivating my patients to get that scan at the first session. They see that scan and they’re willing to take responsibility.”

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Dollars

That’s the title of a 2009 editorial by Dr. Martha Farah in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. She argues that cognitive neuroscientists have a responsibility to speak out when clinical [and legal] applications of brain imaging are being misrepresented by for-profit companies such as the Amen Clinics:

Tens of thousands of individuals, many of them children, have been exposed to the radiation of two SPECT scans and paid thousands of dollars out of pocket (because insurers will not pay) against the advice of many experts… The Amen Clinics are now marketing their services outside the medical arena, advising couples with marital problems and even “prescreening” couples.

People are swayed by colorful brain images, whether they’re in the classroom, the courtroom, or the clinic. Or on reality TV. SPECT scans should not be used for diagnostic or entertainment purposes; there’s no scientific evidence for the former and the latter is unethical.

Further Reading

This Is the Presidential Candidates‘ Brains On…

On Amen’s Dec. 2007 editorial in the Los Angeles Times advocating SPECT scans for presidential candidates.

Celebrity Neurostigma
On celebrity SPECT scans from celebrity patients in the reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Also a lesson in medical ethics. Special guest appearance by Dr. Amen.

Dennis Rodman-Mindy McCready Mind Meld
On the startling similarities in the SPECT scans of Celebrity Rehab participants Dennis Rodman and Mindy McCready.


1 In case you’re interested in learning more about how the method works, this review chapter (by the Committee on the Mathematics and Physics of Emerging Dynamic Biomedical Imaging, National Research Council) is one place to start.

2 In fact, I can tell when there’s a PBS fundraiser because the number of visitors from a search of daniel amen quack increases.

3 However, new research applies machine learning algorithms to neuroimaging data in an attempt to classify patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders (Orrù et al., 2012).


Farah MJ. (2009). A picture is worth a thousand dollars. J Cogn Neurosci. 21:623-4.

Kapur S, Phillips AG, & Insel TR (2012). Why has it taken so long for biological psychiatry to develop clinical tests and what to do about it? Molecular psychiatry PMID: 22869033

Orrù G, Pettersson-Yeo W, Marquand AF, Sartori G, Mechelli A. (2012). Using Support Vector Machine to identify imaging biomarkers of neurological and psychiatric disease: a critical review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 36:1140-52.