MIND Reviews: June/July 2005

Reviews and recommendations from the June/July 2005 issue of Scientific American MIND

Through such observations, Goldberg emphasizes the importance of maintaining an active mind as a defense against mental decline. Though not a new idea, Goldberg impressively fits it into a wide-ranging picture of the aging brain. He speculates, for example, that art serves a central societal function in boosting mental acumen. He also outlines a "cognitive exercise program" he runs in which participants engage in computer-based exercises. The discussion here would have benefited from home-based exercises readers might try.

Altogether, The Wisdom Paradox makes a compelling case for the possibility of maintaining a sharp mind far into old age. The book merits attention from the old and not so old alike. --Kenneth Silber

Ice-Pick Therapy

The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness                                                                                                                                        by Jack El-Hai. John Wiley & Sons, 2005 ($27.95)

Few words conjure up more gruesome connotations than "lobotomy"--surgically severing the brain's frontal lobe in an attempt to relieve intractable psychiatric symptoms. And yet these operations--first performed in the U.S. in 1936 by psychiatrist and neurologist Walter Jackson Freeman and neurosurgeon James Winston Watts--continued for more than 40 years. In that time, Freeman, the procedure's champion, cut the brains of 3,500 people.

Biographer Jack El-Hai chronicles lobotomy's reign through Freeman's quest to treat mental illness surgically. The tale follows this son and grandson of prominent physicians from his youth in Philadelphia during the early 1900s through his rise and eventual fall in national prominence. Freeman emerges not merely as a maniacal devotee of radical "psychosurgery" but as an earnest advocate of potential treatments for otherwise intractable mental illness. Most of Freeman's work took place when state psychiatric hospitals overflowed with seemingly untreatable patients, many of whom suffered relentlessly. Effective psychiatric medications were not yet available, and lobotomy became a measure of last resort. El-Hai describes how neurosurgeons experimented to transform the complicated prefrontal lobotomy into the simpler transorbital lobotomy--nearly an outpatient procedure in which a physician entered a patient's brain through a region above the eye with an ice-picklike tool. A skilled practitioner could perform a transorbital lobotomy in minutes.

Surprisingly, many of Freeman's lobotomies were reported as successful, not only by Freeman but also by some patients and their families, who sent hundreds of letters expressing gratitude. Of course, many surgeries failed; Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy who suffered "agitated depression," was left "inert and unable to speak more than a few words," as El-Hai says, and was ultimately institutionalized. In 1950 Freeman and Watts reported that of 711 lobotomies they had performed, "45 percent yielded good results, 33 percent produced fair results, and 19 percent left the patient unimproved or worse off." Not surprisingly, many patients remained confused, disconnected, listless and plagued by complications such as seizures. With the emergence of effective drugs during the 1970s, physicians halted lobotomies altogether.

This article was originally published with the title "Mind Reads."

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