Daniel Amen, modern snake oil pusher: Bad for science, bad for you

Daniel Amen is a scary manifestation of the fallibility of our current populous that doesn’t understand current science (partially because we aren’t doing a good job of describing our work) and is over-exposed to constant (mis)information on the internet and TV. He is the worse of the ‘doctors’ out there that are trying to take advantage of your lack of scientific training. Afternoon TV shows like “The Doctors”, ‘brain-games’ like luminosity, and SPECT imaging as a singular diagnostic tool for psychiatric disorders are all modern versions of snake oil.

All Amen is doing is selling modern snake oil. SPECT imaging is a very basic and poor representation of how the brain works and it can only be used diagnostically when paired with many other imaging techniques like structural and functional MRI, PET, and EEG (and even then it only gives clues). Any of these imaging techniques by themselves are not capable of painting the full picture of a patient’s status. For instance in epilepsy, the physicians use all of these tests together and review them all in a meeting for each possible surgery patient to figure out where their seizures may be starting. In the case of epilepsy, the cause of the abnormal activity is fairly well understood (i.e. electrical storms in the brain), but Amen claims to be able to diagnose “brain trauma, underachievement, school failure, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, anxiety, aggressiveness, cognitive decline, and brain toxicity from drugs or alcohol”, but that is totally not true.

Let’s take depression as an example. I work with a lab who’s main mission is to determine a diagnostic biomarker for depression. They have been working for 15-20 years on this problem and have only recently discovered some possible neural ‘biomarkers’ that may point to whether a person will get better from an anti-depressant, therapy, or a combination of both. And if you ask them, they’ll tell you we essentially know nothing about how these things actually work in the brain.

That’s right. We honestly don’t know how the brain works at this point and are just beginning to sort of understand it. We have gained many clues in the past century, but the full picture is far, far from being understood. Brain imaging is one useful way to get these clues, but it is very limited in it’s scope. Each different type of brain imaging gives us a view of a different facet of the brain at work. Techniques like fMRI, SPECT, and PET imaging all give us one part of the picture, but honestly all of these techniques are very abstracted from the true level at which the brain works: the level of neurons, neurons firing, at the temporal resolution of milliseconds. In other words, the activity in our brains is constantly changing to give rise to the thoughts we have and behaviors we display. These changes in brain state happen on the order of milliseconds and can only be summed on the orders of seconds, minutes, hours, and days. The sums of these millisecond by millisecond changes that happen in the brain both form and constrain our current and future behaviors and personality. SPECT and PET imaging can at most tell us where glucose or another molecule is being used in the brain on the order of MINUTES! fMRI is only now (in the past couple years) able to tell us where the fresh, oxygenated blood is going from our heart and lungs in our brain on the order of 1 second. That doesn’t mean that these human brain imaging techniques don’t tell us anything, but rather that they only tell us part of the story. They are also basically the only way for us to see into the living, functioning brain of a normal, healthy human being. Without these techniques we’d have to only rely on studies of what happens when the brain is damaged or animal studies to understand what behaviors different parts of human brain are involved in computing.

Daniel Amen should have his MD licensure stripped for this clear, fraudulent use of a neuroimaging technique that takes advantage of those that are not scientifically savvy. There is no way on earth that his ‘approach’ helps anyone beyond a placebo effect, where just from going to get brain scans and see him, helps the patient believe they are better or understand something. Here are some other articles that further cover his fraudulence:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/…/can-daniel-amen-read…

https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/dr-amens-love-affair-with-spect-scans/

I’ve seen him on various TV channels selling his snake oil, but he is doing nothing more than defrauding people and making them trust science less. If you hear any of your friends talking about this please tell them to steer clear and to tell their friends the same.

 

Cory Inman, Ph.D. is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University in the Department of Neurosurgery. He studies the dynamics of neural processing in the brain with fMRI and intracranial EEG. The thoughts and opinions shared here are his only and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

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