History of psychosurgery

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Psychosurgery, also called neurosurgery for mental disorder or functional neurosurgery, is surgery in which brain tissue is destroyed with the aim of alleviating the symptoms of mental disorder. It was first used in modern times by Gottlieb Burckhardt in 1891, but only in a few isolated instances, not becoming more widely used until the 1930s following the work of Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz. The 1940s was the decade when psychosurgery was most popular, largely due to the efforts of American neurologist Walter Freeman; its use has been declining since then. Freeman’s particular form of psychosurgery, the lobotomy, was last used in the 1970s, but other forms of psychosurgery, such as the cingulotomy and capsulotomy have survived.

Early history[edit]

Trepanning, the practice of drilling holes in the skull, was performed from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages and up to the Renaissance. It is possible that some of these operations were carried out for psychiatric purposes.[1]

In 1891 Gottlieb Burckhardt, the superintendent of a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland, published the results of an operation on the frontal lobes of six patients. The operation was a topectomy, in which parts of the frontal, parietal and temporal cortex were excised. Other psychiatrists were not enthusiastic about his work and he abandoned his operations.[2] The Estonian neurosurgeon Ludvig Puusepp also operated on psychiatric patients in St Petersburg in 1910.[3]


It was the work of the Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz in the 1930s that led to a wider use of psychosurgery. Moniz, working with neurosurgeon Pedro Almeida Lima, started operating on patients in late 1935. The first operations involved injections of alcohol into the frontal lobes of patients to destroy white matter; Moniz then devised an instrument he called a leucotome to remove small cores of white matter. He coined the terms leucotomy and psychosurgery.[2][4] Moniz's methods were taken up in the United States by the neurologist/neurosurgeon team of Walter Freeman and James Watts, who, in the words of American psychiatrist Victor Swayze, "did more to promote the use of psychosurgery than anyone else in the world".[3] At first they used the same technique as Moniz, but then they devised their own technique which more completely severed the connections between the frontal lobes and deeper structures. They coined the term lobotomy for the operation, and it became known as the standard prefrontal lobotomy or leucotomy of Freeman and Watts.[3][5] Freeman and Watts would go on to perform 600 of these standard operations; in the United Kingdom neurosurgeon Wylie McKissock performed over 1,400.[3]

The standard lobotomy/leucotomy involved drilling burr holes in the skull on the side of the head and inserting a cutting instrument; it was thus a "closed" operation, with the surgeon unable to see exactly what he was cutting. In 1937 J.G. Lyerly at the Florida State Hospital developed a similar operation but reached the brain via larger holes in the forehead and was thus able to see what he was cutting. Some neurosurgeons preferred this "open" technique to Freeman and Watts' closed technique as it was less likely to damage blood vessels; it became the most widely used standard lobotomy/leucotomy in the United States.[3]


The use of psychosurgery increased during the 1940s, and there was a proliferation of the techniques used for the operation.[3] In 1946 Freeman developed the transorbital lobotomy, based on a technique first reported by Italian psychiatrist Armano Fiamberti.[3] In this operation an ice-pick like instrument was inserted through the roof of the orbit (eye socket), driven in with a mallet, and swung to and fro to cut through the white matter. Freeman used ECT as an anaesthetic and carried out the operation without the aid of a neurosurgeon. This led to a rift with Watts. Freeman performed over 4,000 of these transorbital operations.[4]

During the 1940s neurosurgeons devised other methods of psychosurgery in the hope of avoiding the undesirable effects of the standard operation that were becoming increasingly apparent as long-term follow-up studies were conducted.[4] William Beecher Scoville, of Hartford Hospital and Yale Medical School, developed a method of cortical undercutting.[4] Two of the techniques still in use today date from this period: Jean Talaraich in France developed the capsulotomy,[4] while at Oxford in England Hugh Cairns performed the first cingulotomies in the late 1940s.[6] The 1940s also saw the introduction of the stereotactic frame, which would allow surgeons to find their bearings more accurately when doing closed operations.[4]

Many countries started to use psychosurgery during this decade. In 1939 Freeman had given a talk at the International Congress in Neurology in Copenhagen and, although initially met with scepticism by Scandinavian psychiatrists, they were soon using psychosurgery on patients, especially those diagnosed as schizophrenic. In Sweden and Denmark operations were performed in neurosurgical wards; in Norway they were more often carried out by visiting orthopaedic surgeons in psychiatric hospitals. Norway was also the only Scandinavian country to use transorbital lobotomy.[7]

In Britain, the first psychosurgical operations were carried out in Bristol in late 1940 and early 1941.[8] By 1947 the Board of Control was able to publish a report entitled Pre-frontal leucotomy in 1,000 cases.[3] Psychosurgery was also introduced into British East Africa. In 1946 twenty prefrontal leucotomies were performed, mostly on African women, in Bulawayo. The next year a further 70 were performed, but the number declined after that.[9]

In 1949 Moniz was awarded half the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his "discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses". He had already been nominated three times for his work on radiology. In 1943 he was again nominated, this time by Walter Freeman for psychosurgery, and this led to an evaluation of the operation by professor of psychiatry Erik Essen-Möller. His report to the Nobel Committee pointed out that Moniz had paid too little attention to the side-effects of psychosurgery and had not done any in-depth observations. Essen-Möller also studied the published literature on psychosurgery; he found a mortality rate of about 3.5 per cent, with other patients left in the state of "a surgically induced childhood". He also noted the lack of comparison with other treatments and concluded that it was a mutilating treatment with a "negative side yet to be heard", and did not deserve the prize.[10] Moniz received nine nominations in 1949 (five from Lisbon, three from Brazil and one from Copenhagen) and this led to a special report by neurosurgeon Herbert Olivecrona. He decided that Moniz' hypothesis "that emotional tension could be eliminated by leucotomy" had been proven. The personality changes following surgery he thought were of subordinate importance and the death rate, which he put at one or two per cent by then, "not worth mentioning". Accordingly, Moniz was awarded the prize.[10]

1950s and 1960s[edit]

In spite of the award of the Nobel Prize to Moniz, the popularity of psychosurgery decreased during the 1950s. This has been attributed to "an increased awareness of the negative changes of personality in addition to the introduction of new anti-psychotic medication".[10] In the United States the use of psychosurgery probably peaked at an estimated 5,000 or so operations annually.[3]

In Britain in the mid-1950s, about three-quarters of psychosurgical operations were standard pre-frontal leucotomies. By the end of the decade, some 500 operations were carried out every year. The standard operation was on its way out, but still accounted for about one-fifth of operations.[11]

From 1940 to 1960, Scandinavia used psychosurgery at a rate of about two-and-a-half times the rate of the United States. Gaustad in Norway became a particular centre for psychosurgery in the mid-1950s, with money from the United States.[7]

Innovations in surgical techniques continued apace. In Britain in 1964 Geoffrey Knight developed the subcaudate tractotomy, implanting radioactive seeds in the brain to destroy tissue.[4] This was to become the most widely used type of psychosurgery in Britain, until it was abandoned some thirty years later. In Tulane in the United States, Robert Heath and colleagues in the 1950s began experimenting with deep brain stimulation as a treatment for psychiatric disorders. The Tulane programme would continue until the 1970s.[12]

1970s to the 1980s[edit]

The 1970s was a decade of ethical debate about psychosurgery. In the United States this debate followed the publication of a book entitled Violence and the Brain, in which the authors advocated psychosurgery as a way to prevent violence, and then a landmark legal case (Kaimowitz v the Department of Mental Health) which concerned a prisoner's ability to consent to psychosurgery.[2] As a result the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research held hearings on psychosurgery. Its report was favourable and concluded that research on psychosurgery should continue.[4]

In the United Kingdom, a survey found that in the mid-1970s about 150 people a year were undergoing psychosurgery. A few people underwent the standard pre-frontal leucotomy; the most commonly used operation was subcaudate tractotomy. Methods used to destroy tissue included thermocoagulation, suction, radioisotopes and leucotomes. By far the most common diagnosis of those undergoing psychosurgery was depression, followed by anxiety, violence, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.[13] The 1983 Mental Health Act legislated for the use of psychosurgery. Section 57 stipulated that it could only be used on patients who had consented to it, and when a psychiatrist from the Mental Health Act Commission had authorised it and the psychiatrist and two non-medical people from the Commission considered that the consent was valid.[14] By the end of the 1980s about 20 patients a year were undergoing psychosurgery in the United Kingdom.[15]

1990s to the present[edit]

There are four different psychosurgical techniques that have been in common use in recent years: anterior cingulotomy, subcaudate tractotomy, limbic leucotomy and anterior capsulotomy.[2]

In the United Kingdom, psychosurgery continued during the 1990s at the rate of fewer than 30 operations a year. In 1999 there were eight operations - one in London, three in Cardiff and three in Dundee, all for depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.[15] In Australia and New Zealand there were two operations a year in the 1990s, down from ten to twenty in the early 1980s.[16] The use of psychosurgery in the United States is difficult to estimate but continues at one centre at least in Massachusetts.[16] Other countries where it continues to be used include Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Spain, and some South American and Eastern European countries.[16]

Psychosurgery had been prohibited by the Minister of Health in the USSR.[17] In the late 1990s the Institute of the Human Brain in St Petersburg developed a programme of cingulotomy for the treatment of addiction.[18]

Deep brain stimulation is now being used as alternative to ablative psychosurgery.[16] There is debate about whether or not, for legislative purposes, it should be considered as psychosurgery.[19]


  1. ^ Robison, R A; Taghva A, Liu CY, Apuzzo ML (2012). "Surgery of the mind, mood and conscious state: an idea in evolution". World Neurosurg 77: 662–686. 
  2. ^ a b c d GA Mashour, EE Walker and RL Martuza 2005 Psychosurgery: past, present, and future.Brain Research Reviews 48: 409-19
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i VW Swayze 1995 Frontal leukotomy and related psychosurgical procedures in the era before antipsychotics (1935-1954): a historical overview. American Journal of Psychiatry 152(4): 505-15
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h AC Heller et al. 2006 Surgery of the mind and mood: a mosaic of issues in time and evolution. Neurosurgery 59(4): 720-39
  5. ^ Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, retained the word leucotomy rather than lobotomy
  6. ^ GJ Fraenkel 1991 Hugh Cairns: first Nuffield Professor of Surgery, University of Oxford. Oxford University Press: 207-08
  7. ^ a b J Tranøy 1996 Lobotomy in Scandinavian psychiatry. The Journal of Mind and Behavior 17(1): 1-20
  8. ^ D Crossley The introduction of leucotomy: a British history. History of Psychiatry 4: 553-64
  9. ^ J McCulloch 1995 Colonial psychiatry and "the African mind". Cambridge University Press: 19
  10. ^ a b c C-M Stolt 2002 Moniz, lobotomy, and the 1949 Nobel Prize. In E Crawford (ed.) Historical studies in the Nobel Archives: the prizes in science and medicine. Universal Academy Press, Tokyo: 79-93
  11. ^ J Pippard 1962 Leucotomy in Britain today. Journal of Mental Science 108: 249-55
  12. ^ AA Baumeister 2000 The Tulane electrical brain stimulation program: a historical case study in medical ethics. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 9(3): 262-78
  13. ^ JM Barraclough and NA Mitchell-Heggs 1978 Use of neurosurgery for psychological disorder in British Isles during 1974-6. British Medical Journal, 9 December 1978: 1591-3
  14. ^ The Mental Health Act Commission. 1999 Eight Biennial Report: 182
  15. ^ a b Royal College of Psychiatrists 2000 Neurosurgery for mental disorder. London
  16. ^ a b c d PS Sachdev and X Chen 2009 Neurosurgical treatment of mood disorders: traditional psychosurgery and the advent of deep brain stimulation. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 22(1): 25-31
  17. ^ BL Licherterman 1993 On the history of psychosurgery in Russia. Acta Neurochirugie 125: 1-4
  18. ^ SV Medvedev, AD Anichkov and YI Polyakov 2003 Physiological mechanisms of the effectiveness of bilateral stereotactic cingulotomy against strong psychological dependence in drug addicts. Human Physiology 29: 492-7
  19. ^ J Johnson 2009 A dark history: memories of lobotomy in the new era of psychosurgery. Medicine Studies 1: 367-78