Can a Doctor See Ariana Grande’s PTSD in Her Brain Scans?

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Okay look, I am not tuned into pop music but let me start this video by saying I like Ariana Grande. Why? Because I’ve heard some of her songs and I’m a human being. For fucks’ sake, she made an entire music video in tribute to the great girl comedies of the early 20th century. That is art, I don’t care if you like it or not.

In case you forgot because of the multitude of similar events over the past several years, in 2017 a terrorist murdered 22 people and injured another 250 (including children) at Grande’s concert in Manchester, UK. Ariana Grande wasn’t injured but cut her tour short and flew back to her mother’s home in Florida afterwards.

That’s the kind of thing that can severely fuck you up, and sure enough, Grande has been open about having PTSD from the incident. And that’s great! The more that people are able to be honest about mental illness, the less stigma will surround people who need to get help, and so more people will be willing to seek out that help. Mental illness doesn’t make you weak or weird or any more fucked up than the rest of society.

But — and there’s always a but — recently Grande posted a photo of her brain on Instagram, comparing a scan of it to a scan of a healthy brain and a brain with PTSD. She remarked that it was hilarious and terrifying, I assume referring to the fact that her brain is all lit up, like the one with PTSD.

She wrote that she “wanted to encourage y’all to make sure you check on your brains / listen to your bodies / take care of yourselves. I love science and seeing the physical reality of what’s going on in there was incredible to me.”

Her heart is in the right place, but her brain…isn’t. Sorry, bad joke. What I’m saying is that that isn’t science. I know, I’m sorry. It looks like science! It feels like science! But it’s not. It’s pseudoscience.

Mental illness causes changes in the brain, and yes, it is possible that doctors may be able to see these changes, but right now our knowledge and technology is only at the point where we can maybe see subtle changes across large populations — it’s nowhere near the point where we can look at an individual’s brainscan and say, “Yes, these bright spots show that this person has PTSD.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t stopping quacks from saying that repeatedly and making millions of dollars doing so. One such quack is Daniel Amen, who lives in a mansion on the Pacific and rakes in about $20 million a year telling people he can diagnose and cure them with brainscans. He uses single photon emission computed tomography, or SPECT, despite the fact that it’s an outdated technology with lower resolution than fMRIs and other methods. And he claims he can differentiate between PTSD, traumatic brain injury, ADD, and other disorders with a degree of accuracy that is not only ridiculous but has yet to be replicated by anyone (difficult considering that he refuses to make his data public).

The interesting thing about all this is that even if his scans don’t actually work at diagnosing mental illnesses, Amen does seem to have found significant success in getting patients to adhere to a treatment plan, which is often a big problem in the area of mental problems. Showing a patient a photo of their brain and saying, “Here is the problem you’re experiencing,” can be extremely powerful, as Ariana Grande showed in her Instagram post. It can convince people that yes, there is something physically wrong, it can be fixed, and so they’re more likely to take the recommended drugs and to make lifestyle changes like improving diet and exercise.

When I was 9 or 10, I broke my pinky finger playing wiffle ball. Yes, I was quite the Evel Knievel. It was summertime and I was supposed to make sure my bandages didn’t get wet for the month or so my finger needed to set. I did not do that. I was constantly at the beach, in the pool, literally going tubing. I refused to change my lifestyle and so I had to go back to the doctor four or five times to redo the bandages.

It was hard enough to get me to change in that instance. Imagine how hard it would have been if I didn’t have an x-ray proving that my finger was broken. Imagine how hard it would have been if many people around me didn’t believe fingers could be broken, or that I was making up the pain.

Does that mean I think Amen and other quacks are actually doing a good thing? Because ultimately they’re validating people and encouraging them to get better? No. We can do those things without bilking them out of millions of dollars and misleading them about the science.

Another example from my life: in college I went to a doctor complaining of being nauseated all the time, of feeling like I was constantly on a roller coaster. He prescribed me heartburn medication and sent me on my way. It helped the nausea so I figured he was right.

Years later, I got a new doctor who told me I had severe anxiety, not heartburn, and he gave me a drug for it. I suddenly realized that the things I just assumed were a part of life, like lying in bed freaking out because we can never stop the heat death of the universe, were actually caused by a real disorder in my brain. I suddenly felt validated and seen by that doctor, and that helped me get to the point where I don’t literally make myself sick worrying about things I can’t control.

And the more I see other people talk about their own mental health, the better I feel and the more motivated I become to improve my lifestyle — to stay on my meds or adjust them as needed, or to go for a run, or to eat something other than Cadbury creme eggs for dinner. We can encourage better mental health by getting rid of the stigma around it, by encouraging people to talk about it, and by telling them the actual real science of neurology.

Oh and universal health care wouldn’t hurt, either. I know, I pretty much end every video with that but it’s true.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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