To Top 5 Life Lessons I've Learned From Reviewing 225,000+ Brain Scans
If you injure your leg, an orthopedist will order an X-ray to see if there are any broken bones. If you have chest pain, a cardiologist will scan your heart. If you have blood in your stool, your doctor will recommend a colonoscopy. But if you have depression, anxiety, or problems with focus and attention, most psychiatrists will simply ask you to describe your symptoms. No one will look at your brain. It makes no sense.
For me, that all changed in 1991. That's when I was first starting out in my own psychiatry practice, and I attended a lecture on an imaging technology called SPECT (single-photon emission computed tomography). The lecturer showed how scanning the brain could give psychiatrists more information to help us ask better questions, provide more accurate diagnoses, and better treat our patients. From the first brain scan image, I was hooked.
I started using SPECT in my practice with my patients. SPECT measures blood flow and activity in the brain, and it shows us three things: areas with healthy activity, too much activity, or too little activity. Since then, Amen Clinics has built the world's largest database of functional brain scans related to behavior—over 225,000 brain scans on tens of thousands of patients from 155 countries.
Here are the top five things brain scans have taught me over the years:
Mental health problems are really brain health issues that steal your mind
Brain imaging clearly shows that mental health conditions are brain-based. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, OCD, addictions, memory problems, learning disorders, and other issues are all associated with unhealthy brain function. When your brain is troubled—for whatever reason—you are much more likely to have trouble in your life. It interferes with the ability to be successful at work, at home, and in relationships.
Seeing that mental health is really brain health changes everything. It decreases stigma by helping people understand that their problems are medical, not character flaws or moral failings. When people see their scans, they develop brain envy and want a better brain, which increases compliance with treatment plans. That leads to better outcomes. It also helps families gain more understanding and forgiveness, which creates a more supportive environment during the healing process.
Mental health conditions are not single or simple disorders. They all have multiple types
One of the most important things we have learned from brain imaging is that mental disorders are not just one thing. Our brain-imaging work has helped us identify seven types of anxiety and depression, seven types of ADHD, six types of addicts, and more. And each type requires its own treatment plan.
Giving everyone with depression, for example, the same treatment will never work. It may help some depressed people, but it can make others worse. The one-size-fits-all treatment strategy that is common in traditional psychiatry is part of the reason only one-third of depressed people1 respond fully to antidepressants. A brain-imaging study conducted at Amen Clinics that appeared in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease shows that the scans can help predict whether antidepressants will be effective. With brain imaging, we can better target treatments to a person's individual needs for improved results.
Many things hurt the brain
Brain imaging makes it obvious that our everyday habits and life events are either diminishing brain function and mental health or enhancing it.
Head injuries2 are a major cause of mental health issues and memory problems, but few people, including psychiatrists, know it. Drinking too much alcohol3, taking drugs,4 having infections5 (such as Lyme disease or COVID), or being exposed to environmental toxins are bad for your brain and mental well-being. Decades of research show that high blood pressure, diabetes or prediabetes, the Standard American Diet (SAD), chronic stress, hormonal imbalances, negative thinking patterns, obesity, mild dehydration, and sleep apnea harm the brain and increase the risk of mental disorders and memory problems.
Many things help the brain
The good news is that many things are also beneficial for your brain and can boost its function. Daily habits that enhance brainpower, improve emotional wellness, and sharpen memory include learning new things, eating nutritious foods, drinking enough water, engaging in physical exercise, meditating, getting adequate sleep, challenging negative thoughts, limiting exposure to toxins, and having loving relationships. Other brain boosters include certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, multivitamins/minerals, saffron, probiotics, and vitamin D.
You can change your brain and change your life
By far the most exciting and hopeful lesson I've learned is that you aren't stuck with the brain you have. Even if you've been bad to your brain, you can make it better. By avoiding the things that hurt your brain and adopting healthy habits, you can optimize brain function, mental health, and memory.
Even better, you don't have to change everything all at once. You can start by making one small change. That's how one woman named Nancy did it.
In her 80s, Nancy was depressed, anxious, forgetful, arthritic, and obese. Then she bought one of my books in a used bookstore for 50 cents. She loved all the tips in it but didn't think she could put them all into action right away. So she started by simply drinking more water. After a couple of days, she noticed that her energy was significantly better. Then she started taking brain-healthy supplements, including a multivitamin, omega-3s, and vitamin D because her level tested low. They made a big difference in her focus. When she began to feel better, she started walking, dancing, and playing table tennis, which boosted her mood. Eventually, she was taking French lessons and learning to play the guitar.
Over time, Nancy's life changed completely. Her energy, mood, and memory were remarkably better; she lost 70 pounds and was pain-free. I met Nancy when she came to one of our clinics to get a brain scan. It was her 83rd birthday present to herself. When I heard Nancy's story I started to cry, because she was living proof of how the things we have learned from brain scans can make a profound difference in your life.
What small brain health habit can you start today? It only takes one step to put you on a path to a better brain and a better life.
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.