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Lobotomy: Definition and Procedure Overview

What Is a Lobotomy, How Was It Performed?

Lobotomy, also known as “psychosurgery,” is a medical procedure designed to treat certain mental illnesses. While it was widely practiced in the early to mid-20th century, it is now considered an outdated and controversial method. The procedure involves surgically removing or disconnecting specific parts of the brain, in an attempt to relieve symptoms of mental disorders. However, the drastic nature of lobotomy and its potential side effects have led to its decline in popularity and eventual abandonment.

The procedure was first developed in the 1930s by Portuguese neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, who would later receive the Nobel Prize for his work. Initially, lobotomy was hailed as a groundbreaking treatment for a variety of mental conditions, including severe depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. It was believed that by cutting or damaging certain neural connections, the patient’s symptoms would be alleviated or reduced.

There were two primary methods of performing a lobotomy: the prefrontal lobotomy and the transorbital lobotomy. The prefrontal lobotomy involved drilling holes into the patient’s skull and inserting an instrument called a leucotome into the brain. The leucotome was then moved back and forth to sever the connections between the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-level cognitive functions, and the rest of the brain. Another technique, the transorbital lobotomy, involved a thin, sharp instrument being inserted through the eye socket to sever the connections in the frontal lobes.

The effects of these surgeries were often unpredictable and irreversible. While some patients reported an improvement in their symptoms, many others experienced severe side effects such as decreased cognitive function, personality changes, and even a complete loss of emotional control. Additionally, due to the invasive nature of the procedure, there was a significant risk of infection or other complications, which sometimes led to death.

Despite the controversies surrounding lobotomy, its popularity grew in the mid-20th century, largely due to the lack of other effective treatments for mental illnesses at the time. Over 40,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States alone, with an estimated 10,000 of these performed on patients who were younger than 20 years old. However, as new medications and therapies were developed, interest in lobotomy waned. The introduction of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s, which proved to be more effective and less dangerous than lobotomy, marked the beginning of the procedure’s decline.

Nowadays, lobotomy is viewed with horror, due in part to the severe side effects it often produced. The mentally ill were rarely given informed consent, and often, lobotomies were performed on patients who simply exhibited challenging behavior, rather than as a last resort. The procedure came to symbolize the limitations and unethical practices of early psychiatry.

In conclusion, lobotomy was a controversial medical procedure conducted in the early to mid-20th century to treat mental illnesses. It involved severing or damaging specific parts of the brain in an attempt to alleviate symptoms. While some patients reported improvement, many experienced severe side effects and irreversible changes to their cognitive and emotional functioning. With the development of safer and more effective treatments, lobotomy fell out of favor, and its dark legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of ethical medical practices and the prioritization of patient well-being.

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