Lobotomy (synonymous: frontal leukotomy) is a surgical procedure in the brain in which nerve fibers are deliberately severed. Lobotomy was suggested in 1935 by the Portuguese doctor Egas Moniz. Moniz assumed that mental illnesses are caused and maintained by faulty nerve fibers in the brain. Lobotomy was intended to disrupt these connections and allow new, healthy fibers to emerge.

Definition of lobotomy

Typically, lobotomy should  sever the nerve fibers that  connect the anterior frontal lobe to the rest of the brain. To do this, a thin metal rod was inserted through a hole in the skull or through the eye socket into the brain and pushed back and forth there. Lobotomy was originally developed to treat  depression  , but has later been used to treat many mental illnesses.

History of Lobotomy

From today’s point of view, lobotomy appears as a crude, unscientific and  dangerous method.  However, for the treatment of serious mental illnesses, such as  schizophrenia , lobotomy was considered useful by many. Psychiatric hospitals were overcrowded and poorly managed, and effective  drugs  had not yet been found. Anything that promised improvement in symptoms was welcome.

A lobotomy was performed when the consequences of the lobotomy were considered the lesser evil compared to the disease. Lobotomy was carried out on a large scale by the American neurologist  Walter J. Freeman,  who had practiced lobotomy since the 1930s and praised it as an effective treatment method until his death in 1972.

In fact, Freeman published many success stories about patients being able to live independently after a lobotomy. He seems to have neglected the negative consequences of lobotomy in his belief in the usefulness of lobotomy.

Freeman has been particularly criticized for surgeries he is said to have performed against the will of patients and for those that failed to carefully weigh the benefits and negative consequences of the lobotomy.

Lobotomy: Consequences

In fact, long-term systematic studies of the effects of lobotomy found improvements in psychiatric symptoms: restlessness and disruptive behavior were reduced. However, the studies also reported systematically for the first time on the serious negative  consequences of lobotomy . Symptoms regularly reported include:

These lobotomy consequences even coined the disease name “post-lobotomy syndrome”. Many relatives of lobotomy victims are now demanding that the Nobel Prize that Egas Moniz received in 1949 for the introduction of the lobotomy be revoked.

Psychosurgery: lobotomy today

Lobotomy has become less common since the introduction of the first potent psychotropic drugs in the 1950s. It has not been carried out in Germany since the 1970s. However, brain surgery  as a treatment method for neurological and mental illnesses is by no means a thing of the past. In severe cases of epilepsy, targeted removal of brain tissue is an accepted treatment, and   deep brain stimulation is now recommended for patients with Parkinson’s disease .

An electrode is inserted into the brain that stimulates a specific region and can thus alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s. Deep brain stimulation is now also being researched to treat mental illnesses such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

Lobotomy: Film and Celebrity Victims

The public image of lobotomy is mainly characterized by Jack Nicholson’s blank stare in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as well as more recent films such as “Sucker Punch” and “Shutter Island”, in which the protagonists are threatened with a lobotomy.

The case of John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary Kennedy also made headlines. She underwent a lobotomy at the age of 23 at her father’s request; as a result of this lobotomy, her mental and physical health was severely damaged.


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