The neurosurgical endeavor to treat psychiatric patients may have been part of human history since its beginning. The modern era of psychosurgery can be traced to the heroic attempts of Gottlieb Burckhardt and Egas Moniz to alleviate mental symptoms through the ablation of restricted areas of the frontal lobes in patients with disabling psychiatric illnesses. Thanks to the adaptation of the stereotactic frame to human patients, the ablation of large volumes of brain tissue has been practically abandoned in favor of controlled interventions with discrete targets.
Consonant with the role of the hypothalamus in the mediation of the most fundamental approach-avoidance behaviors, some hypothalamic nuclei and regions, in particular, have been selected as targets for the treatment of aggressiveness (posterior hypothalamus), pathological obesity (lateral or ventromedial nuclei), sexual deviations (ventromedial nucleus), and drug dependence (ventromedial nucleus). Some recent improvements in outcomes may have been due to the use of stereotactically guided deep brain stimulation and the change of therapeutic focus from categorical diagnoses (such as schizophrenia) to dimensional symptoms (such as aggressiveness), which are nonspecific in terms of formal diagnosis. However, agreement has never been reached on 2 related issues: 1) the choice of target, based on individual diagnoses; and 2) reliable prediction of outcomes related to individual targets. Despite the lingering controversies on such critical aspects, the experience of the past decades should pave the way for advances in the field. The current failure of pharmacological treatments in a considerable proportion of patients with chronic disabling mental disorders is reminiscent of the state of affairs that prevailed in the years before the early psychosurgical attempts.
This article reviews the functional organization of the hypothalamus, the effects of ablation and stimulation of discrete hypothalamic regions, and the stereotactic targets that have most often been used in the treatment of psychopathological and behavioral symptoms; finally, the implications of current and past experience are presented from the perspective of how this fund of knowledge may usefully contribute to the future of hypothalamic psychosurgery.