You are here

*Please note: you may not see animations, interactions or images that are potentially on this page because you have not allowed Flash to run on S-cool. To do this, click here.*



Psychosurgery is another very controversial type of treatment.

Psychosurgery means surgical procedures carried out on the brain to treat mental disorders.

Psychosurgery goes way back to prehistoric times. There is evidence that Neolithic people survived deliberate surgery to the head - ancient skulls have been found with carefully cut holes that show signs of healing - possibly made to let 'spirits' out.

'Modern' psychosurgery dates from the 1930s. A neuroscientist called Moniz made cuts into the frontal lobes of the brains of people with schizophrenia - with the effect of dramatically calming their behaviour.


Moniz used what he called the 'apple-corer' method, inserting a blunt rod through the temples on either side of the head and moving it up and down to destroy brain tissue! (Yeughh!)

Freeman tried to improve on Moniz' method, with the 'trans-orbital lobotomy'. This time, inserting a blunt rod through the eye socket into the brain. (Even more yeughhh!)

Deliberate damage to the frontal lobes by these techniques is called pre-frontal lobotomy.

Here are some of them:

  1. Calmer, apathetic patients.
  2. Partial paralysis.
  3. Reduced intellectual functioning and inability to learn.
  4. Loss of emotional response to others.
  5. Loss of memory.
  6. Childlike and slovenly behaviour.
  7. The procedures often destroyed individual personalities and, in some cases, caused death.

Why was it used?

The pre-frontal lobotomy became a common surgical procedure - psychiatrists used it in desperate attempts to find treatments for people. Tens of thousands of people had these operations for many different mental disorders.

Moniz claimed that he had a 70% success rate in curing schizophrenia, compulsions and anxiety disorders.

Many people have expressed grave doubts about these claims. The techniques might have reduced 'psychotic' symptoms, but the after effects could be so severe that they probably did more harm than good.

The techniques did not have a thorough scientific basis - no one really knew what they were doing. Surgery was often forced upon people and the results -all irreversible- varied tremendously, from mild changes in memory or intellectual ability to fatalities.

In 1949, Moniz won a Nobel Prize for his contribution to medicine. (Unfortunately, he was later paralysed when he was shot by one of his former patients!)

The techniques described above are no longer in use. In the 1950s, drug therapies meant that such desperate remedies no longer needed to be attempted.

Yes, but the techniques are different. It is sometimes used to alleviate extreme depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, when other treatments have failed to help.

In today's methods, only very small amounts of brain tissue are destroyed by heat or radioactivity. The risks of side effects are lower, and the person appears normal after the surgery. Patients must give fully informed consent for treatment.

Today's techniques seem to be successful for some people. Psychiatrists have said that if the risk of suicide is reduced and some lives are saved in this way, then that is enough to justify the treatment.

The short answer to that is that no one really knows.

Further research might tell us more about it in the future.

In spite of all our sophisticated technology we still don't know much about our own brains - probably the most complicated things in the universe!

Just click "Find out more" and get £10 off your first tutorial