The unique ability of Dr Daniel Amen to link brain images to behavioral problems is inexplicable to a large section of the medical community. Dr.Amen has done path breaking work at the cutting edge of science in SPECT neuroimaging. He has documented links between SPECT images of neural activity and emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, temper, impulsiveness and obsession. After identifying these as “observable circuit problems,” he has successfully treated thousands of patients.
Yet, in spite of his patent success, many dispute his claims. While they sneer at a “picture” of “this is what your brain looks like on drugs,” Dr. Amen clearly perceives the links. Unfortunately, neuroimaging also has radiation risks. So, Dr Amen's opponents demand that the method should not be applied until the results are fully validated. In reality, it may be difficult to widely implement the SPECT route, since it may be more an art than a science. By discounting art, science may also be closing the door to a brilliant vision.
Daniel Amen - Specific Brain Regions Perform Specific Functions You can see "hints of the soul" in brain images. Visible activity in specific brain regions can definitely relate to specific brain functions. Science has volumes of research to show that specific regions of the cortex handle sensory inputs, recognition processes and motor outputs. As an example, recognition of touch sensory inputs are location specific. If the somesthetic association region is damaged, a patient cannot identify a pair of scissors by touch, even though he can feel the scissors. One region identifies touch and a different region identifies the touched object. Similarly, the olfactory region identifies an odor. While such identification and recognition regions are location specific, further processing happens all over the system. Accurate real time detection of event related brain activity may not always be feasible.
Daniel Amen - The Brain Follows A Precise Pattern Recognition Path The brain is a pattern recognition system, which receives and stores patterns from the environment, interprets those patterns and triggers emotions. Emotions focus on specific survival strategies. The motor system interprets emotions to output those strategies as behavioral responses. As such, distinctly different regions receive data, interpret it and trigger strategies for responses. Those emotional responses are interpreted by the whole system to produce motor outputs. The real time process acts globally.
Daniel Amen - Emotions Decide The Strategy Of The Mind As the nervous system developed over millions of years, nature developed many strategies for survival, guided by an intuitive decision making system. The triune brain included reptilian, mammalian and human prefrontal sub-systems. The reptilian system generated primitive responses to hunger and thirst. The olfactory system, added approach and avoidance behaviors, based on odors. Anger and fear signals from the amygdala triggered appropriate behavioral responses. The septal regions motivated the system with rewards for specific behaviors. Higher social emotions like guilt and love brought more choices with the mammalian brain.
Daniel Amen - Emotions Dominate All Brain Activity While many strategies are evaluated, the brain makes a single choice. The cortical regions perceive and interpret, the limbic system triggers emotions and the prefrontal regions pass unemotional judgment. From myriad emotional options, the system selects a single family of emotions. Using intuition, the current emotion colors motor responses in a single hue in all functional regions within milliseconds. Acting globally, the nervous system responds to that group of emotions. Anger, fear, or love dominates the system and colors it in a single hue. Dr. Amen is able to identify abnormal variations of this hue.
Daniel Amen - Abnormal Activity In Some Regions Some brain regions exhibit abnormal activity. While the dominant emotion acts globally, there can be abnormally reduced, or increased neural activity in a particular region. The system creates overactive “speed dial circuits,” under stress. Supported by LTP and neural plasticity, these regions exaggerate a single emotion through looping circuits. Subsystems, including the cingulate system, the limbic system, the basal ganglia, or the prefrontal regions can be affected by the dominant emotions. Excess activity in the limbic system entrains a single emotion, subduing all others. Abnormal activity in the basal ganglia authorizes the strategy of a single emotion to set off repetitive cycles of motor responses. Weakened neural activity in the prefrontal regions saps judgmental functions, which can prevent the onset of irrational emotions. While images of such abnormal activities can relate to problems created by conflicting emotions like anger, or fear, Dr. Amen is able to link those images to specific behavioral problems.
Daniel Amen Links Abnormal Activity To Specific Behavioral Problems Typically, Dr. Amen links sadness, moodiness and poor concentration to the deep limbic system. He links anxiety, panic and fear to the basal ganglia. He links hyperactivity and impulse control problems to the prefrontal regions. Actually, unruly emotions triggered by the limbic system cause all these problems. But “speed dial circuits” can entrain these emotions into the basal ganglia, or the cingulate system. A weak prefrontal region can prevent the delivery of realistic contextual emotions by the limbic system. This can cause the lack of perseverance, attributed by Dr. Amen to poor prefrontal activity. While several regions are involved in any decision process, entrained emotions in any region can cause problems. Dr. Amen links reduced, or excess activity in a specific region to a particular problem. Since such abnormalities can also cause other problems, his critics accuse him of “being able to read the soul in a picture of the brain.”
Daniel Amen - Science Should Recognize His Pattern Recognition Skills Dr. Amen has amazing pattern recognition competence in reading the implications of the SPECT images. Such recognition of subtle patterns is founded on immense experience. Having viewed thousands of images from the viewpoint of the relationship of the images to clinical problems, Dr. Amen sees relationships in patterns, which may not be obvious to even a highly skilled viewer. Another scientist may protest that there is no such link. A skilled tea taster can link a particular tea to the sunny slopes of a particular tea plantation. A less skilled person could argue forever that no such link exists. But, that cannot detract from the amazing success Dr. Amen has achieved in the use of brain imaging for clinical diagnosis or for the treatment of psychiatric disorders in patients. At the same time, the medical community may be right in arguing that less skilled practitioners could misuse the process for monetary gain.