“”People who are desperate are vulnerable to snake oil, and this has all of the look and feel of a clinic that's preying on people's desperation.
|—Dr. Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, on Amen Clinics|
Daniel Amen (1954–) is an American snake oil salesman, quack, "the most popular psychiatrist in America", brain disorder "specialist", and a bestselling self-help author guru. He co-authored a diet/"Biblical lifestyle" book with Rick Warren, Mark Hyman and Mehmet Oz. Amen runs a substantial business that markets books, videos, and countless supplements feeding a business that grosses US$20 million a year.
Amen is the founder of Amen Clinics, a group that has commercialized the use of a now outdated type of brain imaging technology, SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography). While it makes for interesting experiments about large groups, it has not been shown to be an accurate and reliable diagnostic tool for individuals, meaning that thousands of dollars each of his ignorant patients have spent was wasted on a tool that is by definition not justifiably useful for what his groups have been selling it for. Using such an expensive diagnostic tool for even simple problems violates the standard of care of medical professionals to follow the most appropriate diagnostic process for each patient.
Most attempts at diagnosing a single average person based off scans of neuroanatomy are destined to be little more than a guess, either inaccurate, coincidental, or just vaguely familiar as a result of the Forer Effect. Much like the newer, more fashionable PET brain scan pseudo-scientists, he looks at a brain scan, thinks about how "______ disorder is correlated with low levels of brain activity in a certain part of neuroanatomy," and rattles off a few vague predictions that could fit almost any kind of person ("You are happier when you are busy").
Amen Clinics has attracted thousands of people who fear that they are suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an Alzheimer's-like fatal brain disease believed to be caused by repeated hits to the head. CTE is untreatable and can only be diagnosed by autopsy, yet Amen offers a costly "innovative brain-body approach" to desperate clients that claims to improve brain health.
The ethics of neurodiagnosis
Functional brain scans are simply not the correct tool to give an individual an accurate and reliable diagnosis, so the entire concept of Amen Clinics does not help average people so much as make money off their ignorance; they are not better equipped to help individuals than any other kind of "mental health specialists." Brain scans are only useful as a means to collect wide swaths of exploratory data which is later statistically correlated into the "high/low levels of activity" you always read about on the news.
Amen Clinics has scanned 50,000 people at an estimated cost of US$170 million, which would be US$3,400 per person ("10 percent discount if you bring along a member of your family"). Most insurance companies won't reimburse any of that. It's too bad such a potentially useful tool hasn't been shown to be effective under peer review. Most of Amen's patients have been found to be unaware that SPECT scans are not founded on solid evidence, or that a regular psychological specialist could help diagnose them just as well as a functional neuroimaging test.
Dr. Amen expressed the belief that presidential candidates should be brain scanned to see if they would be dysfunctional leaders or not, which might be a feasible idea if technology improves past this new frontier of silly and egregious neuromarketing.
“”I will show you how to make your brain great, including how to prevent Alzheimer's disease...And I'm not kidding.
Not only are the tools his clinics use ineffective for what they are used for, but the treatments suggested are often pseudoscientific. These range from mainstream therapy and psychiatric medications to hypnosis, prayer, meditation, biofeedback, dietary supplements, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and eye-movement desensitization.
Amen sells a variety of branded "natural" vitamins and dietary supplements, including one that is labeled as "preventing or stopping" Alzheimer's disease. He somehow managed to get PBS to air his self-produced infomercial on "the prevention of Alzheimer's disease," to the complaints of many.
Amen also offers a "really super-pure" version of turmeric, an inexpensive spice available at grocery stores. Amen packages the common spice into capsules and sells it as a brain health supplement for US$45 a bottle.
- Sacha Pfeiffer, Everyday people fear they have CTE. A dubious market has sprung up to treat them. NPR, 23 December 2021.
- Harriet Hall, Dr. Daniel Amen’s Response to Criticism on Quackwatch. Quackwatch, 12 November 2007.
- Neely Tucker, Daniel Amen is the most popular psychiatrist in America. To most researchers and scientists, that’s a very bad thing. The Washington Post, 9 August 2012.
- Bree Chancellor and Anjan Chatterjee, Brain Branding: When Neuroscience and Commerce Collide. AJOB Neuroscience, 2:4, 18-27, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2011.611123.
- Daniel Carlat, Brain Scans as Mind Readers? Don't Believe the Hype. Wired, 19 May 2008.
- Harriet Hall, SPECT Scans at the Amen Clinic – A New Phrenology? Science-Based Medicine, 8 April 2008.
- Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT). Clinical Policy Bulletins, Aetna.
- Daniel Engber, Return of the Neuropundits! Slate, 7 December 2007.
- Robert Burton, Brain scam. Salon, 12 May 2008.
- Joanna Hellmuth, Gil D. Rabinovici, and Bruce L. Miller, The Rise of Pseudomedicine for Dementia and Brain Health. US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, JAMA. 2019 Feb 12; 321(6): 543–544.