Mental Health Disorders

What is a lobotomy?
Answered by Science Channel
  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. A lobotomy was once thought to cure everything from schizophrenia and depression to anxiety and moodiness. It also may have been used on patients who had chronic pain from headaches or backaches that could be cured no other way. An alternative name for this psychosurgery is leucotomy, meaning "slice/cut white" in Greek.

    There were a few ways to perform psychosurgery that generally involved drilling holes into the patient's skull so that the doctor could access their brains. Once this was done, he might use a leucotome, which was a pencil-sized tool, to sever nerves through holes at the top of the skull. In the classic lobotomy, the surgeon would access the brain through holes drilled in the upper forehead and use a blade to cut the brain. The procedure involved removing cores of actual brain tissue. A transorbital lobotomy involved inserting an object resembling an ice pick through the patient's eye socket above the eye and hitting the end of the object with a hammer. There was no way to know whether the surgeon was severing nerves or what part of the brain was being damaged [source: Psychosurgery.org]. The underlying theory behind lobotomies was that by making small, physical alterations to specific parts of the brain, one could change the patient's behavior and personality without affecting motor functions or intelligence.

    Portuguese neurologists Dr. Antonio Egas Moniz and Dr. Almeida Lima performed the first lobotomies in 1935. In the United States, Dr. Walter Freeman and Dr. James Watts were the first to perform this surgery in 1936. In fact, Freeman became a huge advocate for the procedures and performed transorbital lobotomies on an estimated 2,500 people in 23 states before he died in 1972 [source: NPR]. Freeman touted that the procedure cut away the emotions in the brain that caused mental illness; with the transorbital method, he could complete the procedure in just 10 minutes. Patients received electroshock first to render them unconscious. He then inserted the ice-pick instrument above both eyes and moved it back and forth. The procedure had successes but also tragic results. His final operation caused a brain hemorrhage in a housewife and his career ended in about 1967.

    The only psychosurgery performed today occurs when there are no other treatments for some disorders such as epilepsy; the techniques have been refined. Psychosurgery is not the same as neurosurgery, which is a different type of surgery performed to target specific conditions and diseases of the brain and spinal cord.

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