“SPECT can specifically help people with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. ... SPECT can specifically help people with anxiety and depression. ... SPECT can specifically help people overcome marital conflict. ... SPECT can specifically help people age better. ... SPECT can specifically help people with weight issues. ...”
At this point, you might think Daniel Amen is one of the most highly regarded psychiatrists in the land.
Not so. Officials at major psychiatric and neuroscience associations and research centers say his SPECT claims are no more than myth and poppycock, buffaloing an unsuspecting public.
None of the nation’s most prestigious medical organizations in the field — including the APA, the National Institute of Mental Health, the American College of Radiology, the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging and the National Alliance on Mental Illness — validates his claims.
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.
The APA, in fact, has twice issued papers that dispute “claims being made that brain imaging technology ... was useful for making a clinical diagnosis and for helping in treatment selections.”
The most recent paper was published last month. It was the work of 12 doctors who spent three years assessing the latest research. The summary: “There are currently no brain imaging biomarkers that are currently clinically useful for any diagnostic category in psychiatry.”
Four years ago, Robert Burton, the author and former associate chief of the department of neurosciences at the University of California at Mount Zion Hospital, wrote a harsh article on Salon.com about Amen’s work. The headline was “Brain Scam.” When recently told that Amen was still in business and grossed $20 million last year, Burton asked for the dollar figure to be repeated.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “Just oh, my God. At some point this gets to be obscene — that’s just my bias — but oh, my God.”
* * *
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.
Amen has no doubt which is fact.
“There are 2,700 scientific articles on my Web site that show the underlying basis for our work,” Amen said recently in an interview. “None of [his detractors] have called me and said, ‘You’ve got the world’s largest database of scans, what can I learn from you?’ Instead, they call me a snake oil salesman and a charlatan.”