Psychosurgery is the destruction of normal brain tissue for the purpose of treating psychiatric disorders or for the control of emotions and behavior. It does not include operations, such as those for Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy, where an identifiable physical abnormality in the brain is causing a known physical disorder.
Lobotomy and other psychosurgeries merit special attention because, as the prototype of brain-damaging therapeutics, they can shed light on the clinical effects of other brain-disabling treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and major tranquilizers. Despite the paucity of active practitioners and advocates of psychosurgery, many psychiatric authorities have condoned this treatment precisely because the principles that find their extreme expression in lobotomy and other forms of psychosurgery also find more subtle expression in all the major somatic treatments in psychiatry.
During the 1970s Dr. Breggin began his reform work by organizing an international campaign to stop the resurgence of lobotomy and other psychosurgery. For a period of several years, most of his time was spent on this campaign, which led to the creation of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology. The best summary of this effort can be found in his book, co-authored with Ginger Breggin, The War Against Children of Color. More recently, Dr. Breggin’s campaign has been extensively documented in The Conscience of Psychiatry: The Reform Work of Peter R. Breggin, MD which quotes dozens of media articles including Time, the New York Times and The Boston Globe as well as dozens of testimonials from witnesses and participants in the campaign, including members of the U. S. Congress.
Dr. Breggin distributed ten thousand copies of his article in the Congressional Record (PDF), which was copied and distributed in even greater numbers by other reformers around the world.
A key event occurred in 1973 at a trial in Detroit, Kaimowitz v. Department of Mental Health, in which a three-judge panel responded to an injunction by Gabe Kaimowitz to stop experimental psychosurgery at the state hospital. The court adopted Dr. Breggin’s expert testimony at the trial and stopped the psychosurgery projects. Dr. Breggin’s article “Psychosurgery for political purposes” provides the best description of the Kaimowitz victory. This court decision — as well as Dr. Breggin’s media appearances, publications, lectures and lobbying in the U.S. Congress — resulted in state hospitals throughout the nation giving up the practice.
Among other victories aimed at stopping psychosurgery, Dr. Breggin wrote Congressional legislation aimed at ending federal funding of psychosurgery and successfully lobbied Congress for the creation of the Psychosurgery Commission, which declared the treatment experimental. Eventually most psychosurgery projects were stopped not only in state hospitals, but also at NIH, VA hospitals and university medical centers.
In June 2002 Dr. Breggin was the psychiatric expert in a psychosurgery case against the Cleveland Clinic that ended with a jury verdict of $7.5 million. After this, the Cleveland Clinic stopped performing the operation. Psychosurgery projects continue to be conducted at Harvard and Brown, but at few if any other places in the United States.
In 2013 researchers at Laval University in Canada have published a study of psychosurgery. The Globe and Mail has reported on this event. Patients and families need to continue to be vigilant about surgical techniques designed to damage or destroy brain tissue and should seek more benign treatments.