Surgery of the mind has a rather checkered past. Though its history begins with the prehistoric trephination of skulls to allow “evil spirits” to escape, the early- to mid-20th century saw a surge in the popularity of psychosurgery. The 2 prevailing operations were topectomy and leukotomy for the treatment of certain mental illnesses. Although they were modified and refined by several of their main practitioners, the effectiveness of and the ethics involved with these operations remained controversial.
In 1947, Dr. J. Lawrence Pool and the Columbia-Greystone Associates sought to rigorously investigate the outcomes of specific psychosurgical procedures. Pool along with R. G. Heath and John Weber believed that nonexcessive bifrontal cortical ablation could successfully treat certain mental illnesses without the undesired consequences of irreversible personality changes. They conducted this investigation at the psychiatric hospital at Greystone Park near Morristown, New Jersey.
Despite several encouraging findings of the Columbia-Greystone project, psychosurgery practices began to decline significantly in the 1950s. The uncertainty of results and ethical debates related to side effects made these procedures unpopular. Further, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union condemned the use of psychosurgery, believing it to be an inhumane form of treatment. Today, there are strict guidelines that must be adhered to when evaluating a patient for psychosurgery procedures. It is imperative for the neurosurgery community to remember the history of psychosurgery to provide the best possible current treatment and to search for better future treatments for a particularly vulnerable patient population.