Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Are Lobotomies Gone for Good?

By alexlmx/adobestock

If I were a few decades older, I might have undergone a lobotomy. Treatment-resistant bipolar disorder (or manic depression, as it was called then) and schizophrenia are some of the disorders lobotomies were recommended for. It was thought that such mental illnesses were caused by faulty connections in the brain and that the cure was to sever those connections. Lobotomy pioneer Antonio Egas Moniz received a Nobel prize for inventing the operation.

The main problem was it didn’t always work as planned. There were other problems as well, such as the flattening of affect and severe brain damage (what a surprise). The most noted person to have a lobotomy (also called leucotomy) was Rosemary Kennedy, the developmentally delayed sister of John and Robert.

There were two kinds of lobotomies, though only the method differed. The prefrontal lobotomy involved drilling holes in the patient’s skull in order to get to the frontal lobes, where the trouble was thought to lie. The other, and to me more alarming, version was called the transorbital lobotomy. The “orbit” in transorbital refers to the eye socket. An instrument was introduced into the brain by going through the eye socket (without disturbing the eye) and used to sever the connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain. Around 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S., most between 1949 and 1952

Doctor Walter Freeman was the champion of the transorbital lobotomy, often called “icepick surgery” for the slender instrument that was inserted and then swooped about, in hopes of severing the faulty brain wiring. Dr. Freeman was so adept at this that he could perform many of these surgeries in a day, and indeed performed around 3,500 during his career, including 2,500 icepick lobotomies. He once performed 228 of the procedures in a two-week period and taught the technique to countless other doctors. Some of his patients underwent more than one lobotomy.

Eventually, the lobotomy came into disrepute for A) being the horrible invasion that it was, B) reducing many patients to an emotionless or brain-damaged state, and C) being depicted in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a punitive, brutal, and unnecessary procedure. The lobotomy all but disappeared from the psychiatric and surgical landscape.

But wait! Lobotomies may be out of fashion, but psychosurgery (or “functional neurosurgery”) is still performed for treatment-resistant mental illnesses. In these operations, however, rather than randomly severing neural connections, the surgeon removes the areas of the brain thought to be the cause of the psychiatric problem. Modern versions of psychosurgery include “amygdalotomy, limbic leucotomy, and anterior capsulotomy,” none of which I know enough about to comment on. Suffice it to say that the days of drilling burr holes in patients’ skulls or taking an icepick to their brains are, as far as I can determine, gone. 

Psychosurgeries are now performed rarely, deep brain stimulation being the preferred form of treatment, especially for non-psychiatric conditions like Parkinson’s or treatment-resistant seizures. And they’re always performed under anesthesia. The patient’s consent is required.

Electroshock therapy is much less invasive and is still used today, although in a lower-key and safer manner than the original procedure – under sedation and with lower amounts of electricity. It still has side effects, such as the loss of short-term memory for the period surrounding the treatment.

Electroshock therapy was considered in my case because of my long-term, treatment-resistant case of bipolar 2, which involved years-long depressive episodes. At first I was terrified, but after doing some research and talking to knowledgeable people, I was just about ready to agree to it. At that point my psychiatrist suggested we try one more drug first – which worked, alleviating (though not curing) my condition like turning on a switch.

(Side note: When I began researching lobotomies, I found that the book My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully, was particularly interesting. The story didn’t follow the usual pattern. Instead, it seems, Dully’s hospitalization and operation (in 1960, when the boy was 12) were largely instigated by his stepmother, who wanted him out of the way, though schizophrenia was diagnosed by Dr. Freeman (see above) before the transorbital procedure.)



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