The Most Important Lesson from 160,000 Brain Scans
The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating impact on so many people. To try to battle it, we’re spending trillions of dollars, making people stay home, and damaging our mental well-being. But what’s really irritating is that nobody is talking about the really big issue. Why are there more deaths in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world? Japan has 126 million people and less than 1,000 deaths from COVID-19. Why does the U.S. have over 70,000 deaths?
The Bible verse John 8:32 is applicable here: “Know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
COVID-19 is attacking us because as a society we are sick. We have damaged immune systems due to the Standard American Diet (SAD) and because dermatologists won the battle and have made us afraid of the sun. This has resulted in low vitamin D levels, which drains the immune system.
On top of this, what other society’s population is 72% overweight and 40% obese? Amen Clinics has published two studies showing that as your weight goes up the size and function of your brain go down. Excess fat on the body produces inflammatory cytokines, which can be a problem with COVID-19. With COVID-19, people develop pneumonia, which sparks an immune response, and this inflammation can cause what’s being called a “cytokine storm.” If you’re already inflamed from too much fat on your body, your chances of surviving that storm are a lot lower.
That’s not all. Half of the people in America are diabetic or prediabetic. And 60% have hypertension or prehypertension. These underlying chronic health conditions make you more likely to suffer severe illness or die from COVID-19. Rather than spending trillions of dollars and scrambling to find a vaccine, we should start putting in the effort to get healthy as a society. That would be a much better use of our resources.
That’s just one of the things we’ve learned at Amen Clinics from 160,000 brain scans.
Here are the other most important lessons brain imaging has taught us.
Lesson 1. Current psychiatric diagnostic models are outdated because they don’t assess the brain
The typical way most people are diagnosed and treated for mental health issues is by going to a professional and telling that person their symptoms. If you have 5 of 8 symptoms that are listed in the DSM, which is like the Bible of psychiatry, you get a diagnosis. For example, if you tell them you’re depressed, then they give you a diagnosis with the same name as what you just told them. And then they give you antidepressants, which in large-scale studies work no better than placebo. (When we target the right medication to the right brain, it works better.)
Or if you say, “I’m anxious,” you usually get an “anxiety disorder” diagnosis and end up with a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, such as benzodiazepines that increase your risk for dementia later in life. Or you say, “I can’t concentrate,” and they say you have ADD and give you a stimulant but without asking why you have trouble concentrating. Is it because of a head injury or something else?
Or, my favorite diagnosis to explain the insanity of the current diagnostic model is if you have temper problems, and you explode intermittently. There’s a diagnosis called intermittent explosive disorder, or I.E.D. What the heck does that mean? Quite simply, it means you explode intermittently. The acronym is ironic, and these people often wind up in anger management classes or on any number of medications. But brain imaging shows us that this is usually from a head injury to the left temporal lobes.
The current model is not based on any underlying neuroscience. It will tell you what it is, but it won’t tell you what causes it or what to do to fix it. That’s the first thing imaging taught me —that I had learned an outdated system.
Lesson 2. All psychiatric diagnoses are not single or simple disorders; they all have multiple types, and each requires its own treatment
Autism is not one thing. ADD is not one thing. I wrote a book called Healing ADD about the 7 types of ADD that sold about 500,000 copies. Brain imaging shows us that healthcare professionals need to stop giving everybody Ritalin. It’s a miracle for some people but a nightmare for others.
Lesson 3. Looking at the brain decreases stigma, increases compliance with treatment, and completely changes the discussion around mental health.
This is why I wrote my book The End of Mental Illness. I hate the term mental illness. And you should too. It’s wrong. They’re brain health issues that steal your mind. The term mental illness is stigmatizing, it’s shaming, and it causes people to not seek help because no one wants to be labeled as having a mental illness. But everybody wants a better brain.
Lesson 4. If what you’re doing is not working, look at the brain.
I had this one boy who had seen 6 psychiatrists, he had been in residential treatment and failed, and he had been in drug treatment and failed. After scanning his brain, it turned out he had a cyst the size of a tennis ball in his frontal lobe and temporal lobe. Do you really think psychotherapy is going to fix that? Is medication going to fix that? No! We had to drain the cyst, then work really hard to rehabilitate his brain.
Lesson 5. Looking at the brain completely changes the discussion about good and evil
It’s easy to call people bad. It’s a lot harder to ask why. I’ve scanned about 1,000 convicted felons and over 100 murderers. I published a study on murderers and most of them had very low activity in the frontal lobes. Does that mean they didn’t do it? No. Does that mean they aren’t responsible for it? No. But when you judge them you need to consider the biological underpinnings of why they did what they did.
Lesson 6. Looking at the brain helps to prevent mistakes.
Seeing the brain helps manage people’s cases by helping find the right treatment solutions and by seeing how the treatment is working or if it needs to be adjusted.
Lesson 7. Mild traumatic brain injuries ruin people’s lives, and nobody knows it.
Most psychiatrists never look at the brain, so they don’t realize that symptoms may be caused by underlying damage to the brain. One of my favorite patients had everything in life—he was good-looking and wealthy—but he woke up one morning with panic attacks. He went on Xanax, but it made him worse. Then he went on antidepressants and got even worse. Then he started having suicidal ideation. When we scanned him, you could see that he had suffered from a brain injury.
I asked when he had a brain injury, but he said he’d never had a brain injury. I pressed on, asking if he had ever fallen out of a tree, fallen off a fence, or dived into the shallow end of a pool. Then there was an a-ha moment. He recalled that two weeks before his first panic attack he’d had a bike accident on a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, and he cracked his helmet. He didn’t lose consciousness, but he didn’t feel right for a couple of days.
Repairing his brain repaired his life. How would I have known that his brain needed repair if we didn’t look?
Lesson 8. Toxins can prematurely age the brain.
Drugs and alcohol age the brain. Marijuana is legal now, and there are some medicinal benefits, but I’m not a fan of rampant use. At Amen Clinics, we did a study that shows it prematurely ages the brain.
Other things that cause premature aging include mold exposure and anesthesia. I saw this first-hand when my assistant had to have surgery for an aneurysm. We had scanned her brain previously, and she had a beautiful brain. But after the surgery, she seemed sadder and not as sharp as usual. Her SPECT scan showed that the anesthesia had damaged her brain. We helped rehabilitate her brain, and she was much better. But nobody tells you when you have surgery that it may harm your brain.
Our SPECT brain imaging work shows that people in certain professions—such as firefighters, who are exposed to carbon monoxide from fires—are more prone to having brains that look toxic.
Lesson 9. You’re not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better. I can prove it.
This is the most important lesson I have learned from 160,000 brain scans. I’ve done thousands of before-and-after SPECT scans, and they clearly show that the brain can improve. We did a study on over 300 NFL players, and over 80% of our players saw improvement after just two months of following the program we gave them. We’ve seen the brains of firefighters, police officers, soldiers, adults, elderly people, and children.
Even if you’ve been bad to your brain, if you get serious about making it better, you can change your brain and it will dramatically change the trajectory of your life.
You can find out more about how I got hooked on brain imaging and what we’ve learned from it in my book The End of Mental Illness and in this video below.
Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever, and waiting to get treatment until the pandemic is over is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples, as well as in-clinic brain scanning to help our patients. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.