Dr. Daniel Amen speaks on brain research and healthy habits


Image Courtesy of KPBS.com

Michelle Brodsky, News Editor

Dr. Daniel Amen is a double-board certified psychiatrist, author and professor. He is also one of the foremost experts on using brain imaging software to optimize patient care. While this software is not typically utilized by psychiatrists, Dr. Amen has used neuroimaging to distinguish post traumatic stress disorder from traumatic brain injuries and has conducted extensive research on the physiological effects of marijuana usage. Amen’s practices use single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) to compare a person’s brain activity to that of a healthy model. Unlike MRI and CAT scans, SPECT looks at the function of the brain rather than the structure.He argues that undiagnosed brain injuries often account for anxiety disorders, depression, insanity, homelessness, and even murder.

In his Ted Talk, he sought to have the audience fall in love with their own brains, encouraging them to pursue actions that promote brain health. He dislikes the fact that all other medical professionals use imaging to diagnose patients but psychiatrists rely solely on external symptoms. By studying each patient’s unique brain, specific diagnoses and treatment plans can be made. By conducting research on the brains of NFL players, Dr. Amen was able to correlate brain injuries to a plethora of different diseases. Perhaps the most interesting thing, however, is that the brain damage can be reversed over time. In order to begin the healing process, a person must follow four steps: brain envy, avoid anything that hurts your brain, engage in regular brain-healthy habits, and take targeted supplements. He provided an entire list of actions to avoid, including but not limited to nicotine consumption, eating unhealthy/obesity, insomnia, drugs, alcohol, poor decisions, and exposure to toxins. Healthy activities include appropriate anxiety, exercise, great nutrition, new learning, supplements and conscientiousness.

In another talk, Dr. Amen shares the most important lesson he’s learned from looking at 83,000 brain scans.  By using SPECT imaging to analyze the brains of individuals from 83 countries, Dr. Amen has realized the importance of using brain imaging in psychiatry, even if it is met with scorn. In every other field doctors look at the organ they treat prior to prescribing medicine, but psychiatrists often just guess, and this should not be the case. Disorders like ADHD are not simple malfunctions in the brain; they are complicated and have multiple types-every case of ADD, ADHD, or depression are different from the next. When somebody acts violent or inappropriate, they are often immediately medicated without any kind of diagnostic imaging. Behaviors are expressions of problems, not the problem itself. Instead of overmedicating people, doctors should be searching for signs of traumatic brain injury and helping these patients get into brain rehabilitation treatment programs. As Dr. Amen continued using SPECT, the criticism grew. He has scanned the brains of over 90 convicted murderers and found that more often than not, a biological cause can be found. What surprised him most, however, was the realization that many of these troubled brains could be rehabilitated.

When it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s, changes in the brain actually start occurring decades before the symptoms can be noticed. Those who wait until they get sick to change their lives are usually too late. Both depression and diabetes have been found to be risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Diabetes is much more than a blood sugar problem, it is rather a blood vessel problem that negatively impacts all organs, even the brain. As a person’s weight goes up, the physical size of their brain goes down which is concerning considering the obesity rate in this country. Diabetes, obesity, depression, and Alzheimer’s are all different expressions of the same unhealthy lifestyle. Dr. Amen said the most important things are having proper blood flow, continuously learning, reducing inflammation, knowing your genetics, reducing head trauma and drug exposure, and taking care of mental health issues, hormone problems, and sleeping enough.

When Dr. Amen analyzed the braIns of marijuana-addicted teenagers, he found that their brains looked toxic and severely damaged. He argues that it is not healthy for someone whose brain is still developing to smoke cannabis. The most frequent reasons for using marijuana is inability to sleep, pain, and anxiety. Dr. Amen argues that there are alternative treatments to these problems that don’t involve hurting the brain. Marijuana use shrinks the hippocampus and reduces energy, so he recommends S-Adenosyl methionine and omega fatty acids. He also recommends melatonin, GABA, and other natural substances.