You knew it had to exist: brain-imaging woo – the use of brain-imagining as a diagnostic tool for various illnesses and conditions. Commercially, it’s a goldmine. Scientifically, the current state of such imaging makes it little more than a fancier version of phrenology. (No, seriously, the connection between Amen’s work and phrenology is so striking that it should be unnerving to anyone.)
Enter Daniel Gregory Amen, director of the Amen Clinics, and a New York Times bestselling author. A red flag should probably be raised already when you realize that he received his degree from Oral Roberts University School of Medicine. But in any case, Amen’s use of brain-imagining bullshittery as a diagnostic tool has gained him enormous financial success and a solid media presence (and he is, for instance, recognized as one of the NFL’s post-concussion experts). Indeed, he has been called “the most popular psychiatrist in America”. Of course, his methods have no grounding in science, evidence or reality, but he is not particularly open about that to his clients, and one can easily imagine his methods coming across as impressively sciencey to those who don’t know better; his publications in e.g. the journal Alternative Therapies are primarily musings on how close-minded his detractors are. Of course, lack of acceptance among the scientific community and evident financial conflict of interest don’t deter Daniel Amen (there’s a good summary here). And of his critics, he said that “[o]ne reason why they hate me is because I make money, [ ... ] our biggest referral sources are our patients.” Of course, that does not quite address the point the critics make about there being no evidence for his methods. I suppose that’s supposed to be covered by his follow-up “If I’m defrauding them how would I stay in business for decades ...?” Oh yes, that’s how it works, I suppose. The techniques are also evaluated here. Amen was not particularly fond of that evaluation, but his response never addressed any of the criticism this time around either.
In some more detail, the techniques employed at Amen’s clinics include using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) as a purported diagnostic tool to identify what he says are sub-categories of these disorders, devised by Amen himself. While a 2012 review by the American Psychiatric Association put it rather carefully by saying that neuroimaging studies “have yet to impact significantly the diagnosis or treatment of individual patients,” the fact is that Amen has no research to back up his claims. Nevertheless, “tens of thousands of individuals, many of them children, have been exposed to the radiation of two SPECT scans and paid thousands of dollars out of pocket (because insurers will not pay) against the advice of many experts.” To some, misleading people in desperate situations for (enormous) profit seems morally questionable.
His television programs devised for the PBS network are straightforward and shameless infomercials and fundraising drives for his clinics and products. Originally, the website of the Amen clinics advertised how the technique was used to explore the Brain-Soul connection, but this was later changed to something more sciency-sounding. The actual science behind the ideas remains the same, however.
He also pushes a variety of dietary supplements that have been suggested to have a large number of health benefits, including a claimed ability to prevent or stop Alzheimer’s disease. It is pure woo and quackery, of course, but they are pushed in a manner that most resembles Joe Mercola or Kevin Trudeau, complete with anecdotes and appeals to nature.
Amen is also the co-author of The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life, with pastor Rick Warren on “how to lead a healthy life” (the other advisors for the book were Mark Hyman and Mehmet Oz) based on Biblical principles and self-help type lifestyle advice.
Worthy of special mention is Amen’s appearance on Dr. Oz’s show to corroborate the claim that a brain scan of “psychic” con woman Teresa Caputo was evidence of spirituality and psychic power. Amen sagely concluded that there is more that is real than scientists believe is real. Yeah, it’s those close-minded scientists again. They’ve been a thorn in Amen’s side from the start.
Diagnosis: Well, though some may suspect that he is so, I am reluctant to officially suspect Amen for being a fraud. I assume that he genuinely believes that his techniques are able to uncover real phenomena. That makes hims a pseudoscientific loon. In any case, his influence is scary.