A Cautionary Therapy Tale

I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers was Dr. Daniel Amen. He is best known for his SPECT scan brain images.  For some info, check the following link:


Some of you may be familiar with the poster, “this is your brain on street drugs” that shows the various images of a nice, smooth, healthy-looking colored image versus various images that look like they have holes in them. Dr. Amen is quick to point out that these are images of blood flow, not images of whether or not brain tissue is actually there. But the point is that the images can show the results of substance use, traumatic brain injury, and other conditions.

NLUNDERDA31 SPECT scan images from amenclinics.com showing brain changes from caffeine/nicotine use. Left: a normal brain, seen from below. Right: 45-year-old after 27 years of smoking three packs of cigarettes and drinking three pots of coffee daily. Remember, images show blood flow, not presence/absence of tissue. Why should illegal drugs get all the bad publicity?

The story that Dr. Amen told was this: he was contacted by a couple who had been in marriage counseling for at least two  years. The man had initially been a loving, wonderful man but had relatively abruptly turned into a jerk. After two years of counseling, the therapist recommended they divorce– despite the fact that they didn’t want to. I have a big issue with that therapist, but it’s not the point.

Dr. Amen did a brain image of the man and immediately came back to ask him if he was doing drugs, perhaps behind his wife’s back. He swore up and down that he was not. Upon further probing, however, it turned out that the problems with their marriage had started shortly after he got a job in a furniture factory– and began to be chronically exposed to industrial solvents. As some of you know, these are some of the same chemicals involved in “huffing,” which is considered a form of substance abuse. In this case it’s really appropriate to say “substance” instead of “drug,” because things like toluene, gasoline, and various organic solvents are not and were never intended to be used internally by humans or other living creatures.

The story has a happy ending, or at least as much as anyone’s story can– he changed his work to get away from industrial solvent poisoning and the marriage was saved. No word about OSHA violations or class action suits…

This is a reminder to those of us who engage in talk therapy with people to make sure we get a bigger picture of the client’s health– and for anyone experiencing mood problems, energy problems, etc., it’s a reminder to make sure you’re taking care of your physical health. What’s your blood sugar like? Is your thyroid OK? Are you getting too much caffeine? Not enough exercise?  Does your work or hobby expose you to toxic chemicals? Good physical health has a lot to do with good mental health. Start anywhere.

Epilogue, of sorts: Dr. Amen said that after what he learned about fat and the brain, he lost 25 pounds. He was looking trimmer than the last time I saw him, so the results of the research must have been pretty convincing.


About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
This entry was posted in behavioral health, Couples and relationships, mental health, physical health, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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