Daniel Amen responds to "Brain scam"

The host of the PBS special "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" addresses the critical Salon article about him.

Published May 12, 2008 10:15PM (EDT)

There are many factors that increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease. The only way to truly prevent this disease is to manage these risk factors. This was exactly what I tried to inform the viewers in the last segment of my new special for public television titled "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life."

According to a study from UCLA, published in the journal Neurology, 95 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease are not diagnosed until they are in the moderate to severe stages of the disorder, when there is little hope for improvement. Alzheimer's disease is expected to quadruple by the year 2050. Even modest advances in preventing Alzheimer's or delaying its progression can have a huge global public health impact. With the aging population, it is critical to aggressively address this serious public health problem.

I am humbled by the response we have had to our show. Viewers from all over the country have written to me saying how much the information in the show has meant to them and their families. It has raised awareness about Alzheimer's disease and has been very helpful for many people on a number of different levels. Preventing Alzheimer's was only 10 minutes of the 60-minute show.

Salon's article on my show was disturbing for a number of reasons. I knew as soon as the show became a success that there would be detractors and critics. That comes with the territory. As the article said, I am not new to controversy. Whenever you do something new or different, there will be challenges to your position.

Let me address some of the specific points in the article.

It is true that I attended a Christian university and medical school. I have a deep abiding belief in God and my faith has been an integral part of my life. I believe 70 percent of the U.S. population claims to have deep spiritual beliefs and I am not an exception. I went to medical school at Oral Roberts University. The medical school closed in 1989 after financial difficulties. I graduated in 1982. I did my internship and psychiatric residency at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. My medical licenses are current in four states. I am board certified in child and adult psychiatry and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For the past six years I have been an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, where I teach classes on brain SPECT imaging and the use of supplements in psychiatry.

The science behind preventing Alzheimer's disease is described in detail in "Preventing Alzheimer's," which was published by Putnam in 2004, and co-authored by neurologist William R. Shankle. Dr. Shankle is one of the recognized world's experts on Alzheimer's disease, who developed one of the commonly used screening tools for Alzheimer's disease. Preventing Alzheimer's contains an extensive reference list (86 citations).

The author attacks my use of brain SPECT imaging for Alzheimer's disease. In the show I specifically did not recommend people get SPECT studies. The scans were used as illustrations to help people understand how this illness ravages the brain. In fact, in the show, I discussed a simple smell identification test to help people begin early screening. I told this to the author when he interviewed me. Yet the science underlying SPECT is vast. On our Web site, you can read 210 scientific abstracts on the use of functional brain imaging such as SPECT for dementia (Alzheimer's is one type of dementia) on over 13,000 patients.

The author attacks my recommendations for natural supplements. He so easily dismisses them as being unproven and having no science, like so many misinformed medical professionals. Yet, there are hundreds of scientific studies on the use of supplements in psychiatry reporting their usefulness. In treating people, one question I always ask myself is what would I prescribe if this was my mother, my children or myself? More and more, after 25 years of being a psychiatrist, I find myself recommending natural or alternative treatments. I am not opposed to medications and I have prescribed them for a long time, but I want people to use all of the tools available to them, especially if they are less expensive and have fewer side effects.

The most significant benefit to using natural supplements is that they often work for mild to moderate problems. Natural supplements have fewer side effects than most medications and they are significantly less expensive. Plus, you never have to tell an insurance company that you have taken them. As awful as it sounds, taking prescription medications can affect a person's insurability. I know many patients and friends who have been denied or made to pay higher rates for medical insurance, life insurance or long-term care insurance because they have taken medications for ADD, anxiety or depression. If there are natural alternatives, they are at least worth considering.

The author also mentions that Quackwatch did an article on me several years ago, but doesn't mention that Quackwatch has its own critics. See the following sites on Quackwatch: Quackpot Watch and Health Freedom Law.

On the author's own Web site he references his own book that he is selling: "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Wrong." A quote from the book is: "If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas." It seems a useful idea for the author to consider. One would think that a well-trained, unbiased neurologist would do a better job at presenting both sides, but it was obvious that was not part of his agenda.

Robert Burton responds: Dr. Amen's comments are further evidence for my article's position.

By Daniel Amen

Daniel Amen is a psychiatrist, author of "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life," and medical director of the Amen Clinics.

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