Doc promotes healthy minds
Protecting the brain should be our biggest concern, he says
“Change your brain, change your life.”
That was Dr. Daniel Amen’s mantra Tuesday afternoon at the Neighborhood Church. At least 300 people sat mesmerized during his three-hour presentation about his work scanning brains and working to increase functionality.
Amen, a psychiatrist, began doing brain imaging in 1991. Over the years, he’s used those images to diagnose and treat psychiatric illnesses like ADD, depression, Alzheimer’s and even behavioral issues associated with brain damage. His philosophy is simple: If you take steps to ensure your brain is healthy, you will enhance all areas of your life.
Amen started off his speech with a story—“I got into psychiatry for the stories”—about an older couple who had been attending marriage counseling for three years and eventually were told, “You should get a divorce.”
“They got an ‘F,’” he said.
Not wanting to go that route, the couple went to one of Amen’s clinics. They offered up a two-year history and had their brains scanned. The images show areas of high and low activity. Imaging is different from getting an MRI in that an MRI shows the brain’s anatomy, whereas the brain image—called a SPECT—shows brain function.
“The husband’s brain looked like that of a drug addict,” Amen said while showing the SPECT on the projector above him. It was riddled with holes—areas of low activity—unlike a healthy brain, which should look smooth. “I asked him, ‘You don’t drink? You don’t do drugs?’ He said, ‘No.’ So I asked the wife and she said, ‘No, he’s just an asshole.’”
So what could be causing the major deterioration in this man’s brain? Amen said he went through the possibilities and asked more questions of the couple. He eventually learned that for the past five years the husband had worked refinishing furniture for eight hours a day. It was the chemicals that were causing the deterioration, which was in turn causing him to be an asshole.
“When your brain is hurt, you don’t have access to be your best self,” Amen explained.
Amen, who joked that he wanted to be a priest growing up until he realized he’d be called “Father Amen,” is on the cutting edge of brain-imaging technology. He’s been featured on shows like Dr. Phil, Oprah and, most recently, Celebrity Rehab. (“Dennis Rodman was like my fantasy brain.”)
His notoriety, however, has also led to quite a bit of controversy surrounding his work. The assortment of books and supplements offered for sale in the church lobby are exactly the stuff that make some people call him a quack. Some of the supplements were selling for $34.99 a bottle.
During the presentation, however, Amen did not try to hawk his goods. In fact, he often pointed to natural remedies for making your brain healthier. There are many ways to increase the aging process, and there are just as many to slow it down, he said.
Things like alcohol and drug use, junk food, lack of sleep, stress, vitamin D deficiency and obesity all make the brain age faster.
“As weight goes up, brain size goes down,” he said, adding that an obese person’s brain looks 16 years older than a healthy person’s brain.
To decelerate that process—and stave off problems like depression and Alzheimer’s—he said people should exercise regularly, take fish oil and vitamin D supplements, make an effort to learn new things, eat well, drink green tea, sleep, meditate and be social. And don’t forget to wear a helmet.
“Ask yourself what you want your life to be like in five years,” Amen said. “Is your behavior today going to get you what you want?”
It is possible to rehabilitate the brain, Amen emphasized, showing SPECTs of patients before and after treatment that indicated a vast improvement. He would like to see everyone getting pictures of their brains, to get an idea of what’s going on in our most vital organ.
“Why are psychiatrists the only medical specialists who rarely look at the organ they treat?” he asked. “We need to start acting like real doctors.”