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In this review I want to direct potential readers/listeners of Change your Brain/Change Your life to a number of links which discuss the science behind the Amen approach to various mental conditions in order to provide expert assessment of the work done at the Amen Clinics. I am not an expert in the field so this approach seems the best way to provide a balanced review of the work. Like many other citizens I was first attracted to the ideas of Amen from watching a television program on our local PBS station. He is a charming speaker. My first response was "if it's on PBS it must be good science". But then I watched Deepak Chopra on the same PBS station and began to wonder what science standards PBS has.
Daniel G. Amen, M.D., runs the Amen Clinics, writes books, gives lectures, maintains a Web site, and makes other media appearances. He recommends single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) to help diagnose and manage cases of brain trauma, underachievement, school failure, depression, obsessive compulsive disorders, anxiety, aggressiveness, cognitive decline, and brain toxicity from drugs or alcohol. He claims to use SPECT to "re-balance a brain whose activity patterns are clearly abnormal." He describes SPECT as a "window into the hardware of the soul." He claims that SPECT scanning provides "guidance in the application of specific medications or other treatments such as supplements, neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy." [Source]
I have learned a lot while listening to this several hour presentation. Amen is a talented reader who presents his stories and lists with passion and humor. Dr. Amen bills himself as a "best-selling author, psychiatrist, and brain-imaging specialist who offers advice for optimizing mental performance and eliminating negative behaviors." He is popular and can be seen and heard on television, YouTube, radio, CDs, books, articles, his web site, DVDs available from his site, and in reports by the PBS ombudsman. (I urge readers to consult the report which makes clear that not everything shown on PBS has been vetted by PBS, another of the lessons I learned.)
Amen is controversial. Here are two conflicting readers' views found at Amazon.com:
Dr. Amen offers many, many suggestions for ways to change your brain and your life which have nothing to do with prescription medication, but he convinced me to explore every possible avenue available, without any of the reservations I originally had about going on Prozac. Just knowing my debilitations can be physiological instead of "all in my head" has made me view my total self differently than at any time since realizing I was "different" around the age of twelve years. I have, at this point in time, had the most productive, fulfilling three weeks of my adult, possibly entire, life. I am literally able to maintain a peace of mind I truly believed impossible.
Dr. Amen's writing style is most accessible to the "lay-reader". The book is a blessing. Anyone who has ever doubted his or her "sanity" should read this work, and find a doctor willing to listen to its message!
While Change Your Brain, Change Your Life is entertaining Dr. Daniel Amen epitomizes modern-day biopsychiatry. Unfortunately, healthcare professionals, parents and teachers have been lead to believe anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, impulsiveness, excessive anger and worry, are confirmatory, neurobiological disorders caused by a chemical imbalance of the brain and can be detected by brain scans. This is pseudoscience at its best. Dr. Amen should not be commended for anything he's accomplished thus far in his medical career.
The above controversy arises from some of the claims made by Amen in his various media presentations. Much of what he has to say is good common sense advice, but his claims about the use of brain pictures to diagnose conditions are not universally accepted by other doctors. While many patients report improvement still there are sceptical scientists and physicians who question the causal claims. There is, for example, an interesting exchange at salon between Dr. Amen and Dr. Burton, which readers interested in the claims, the evidence, and the ongoing debate about SPECT, should read.
Quackwatch has a thorough discussion of the claims in an exchange between Dr. Harriet Hall and Dr. Daniel Amen. Over at Science-Based Medicine readers will find a long critique arguing that "Amen has jumped the gun by using SPECT scanning clinically before research has validated his methods. He thinks he is helping patients; but without proper controlled studies, he can't really know for sure."
Is the Audio Book worth listening to? Yes; it is interesting on its own, and it is interesting as a launch pad for further reading in the new sciences of the brain.
© 2008 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.