Sunday, December 04, 2005

All Lobotomies All the Time

Here's a fascinating and rathering sobering nugget of information: Did you know that in 1936, the Nobel committee awarded Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz the prize in physiology/medicine for inventing the frontal lobotomy (or prefrontal leucotomy).

Over at the Nobel site, Bengt Jansson curtly entertains the question of whether or not Moniz deserved to win a Nobel, but quickly determines that there's "no doubt" he did, if not for his rather barbaric invasive surgery (my words), then for his practice of injecting iodine into the brain (cerebral angiography), "which made it possible to diagnose tumors and vascular deformities."

Having said that, at the time, as this PBS report points out, Moniz was awarded the Nobel after the number of lobotomies in the United States took off--jumpstarted by the afore-mentioned Mr. Freeman--"from 100 in 1946 to 5,000 in 1949." Moniz got his Nobel in, ahem, 1949.

So, although I know the Nobels are often awarded for a body of work, even if they are attributed to particular discovery or novel, the Nobel folks do appear to be rewriting history a little.

It was the development of Thorazine in the early 50s that eventually drove the number of lobotomies down. Of course, Thorazine had its own problems. It produced effects that sometimes mimicked Parkinsons. But that effect leads to further discoveries about dopamine and brain function.

So . . . progress sure is ugly sometimes, ain't it? I think the important thing to consider is that the truly scientific evidence that lobotomies were successful appears always to have been scant. What one person perceives as "improvement," another might consider a stripping away of the patient's very identity or "soul," if you prefer.

Aside: I learned about Moniz from the Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, an engaging lecture series of Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Nueroscience at Stanford--one of The Teaching Company's excellent Great Courses series, which I cannot recommend enough. No, I'm not getting paid by them to say all this stuff. It's just that buying a set of these lectures--at just about 50 bucks for 24 lectures--is like sitting through an entire semester's lecture series at Stanford. Just wish I got the college credit for it, too!

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