Steve Paul

Brain science extends from tragedy to hope

Modern brain science was woefully underdeveloped in the 1940s and ’50s when 2,000 veterans of World War II, who returned from the war with various mental illnesses, were treated with lobotomies.

The Army and Veterans Administration hospitals across the nation were too quick to adopt the surgical severance of neural pathways in the brain. Lobotomies were meant to cure the ill, but created mostly tragedy for the individuals and families who lived with the consequences, which more often than not were lives without much life and sometimes, a result of botched surgeries, death.

We learn this tragic story, an aching forgotten chapter in the chronicles of the “greatest generation,” in a powerful series by the

Wall Street Journal


There are many ways to interpret that history, but most of the details are troubling and hard to read.

Nevertheless, that was then. We know now that some returning veterans of all recent wars suffer from brain injuries and trauma-caused behavioral problems. We can hope treatment today — by way of psychotherapy and medication — is better, but we know there seems to be never enough of it to go around.

And consider how far we’ve come. The tragic story of former Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher will now enter the phase where his body will be exhumed and his brain studied for signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That ailment has affected an untold number of football players and retirees, whose alarming stories of mental and physical decline following their stints in the violent game, have been gaining new and welcome attention.

In Belcher’s case — he murdered his girlfriend, orphaned their infant daughter and fatally shot himself in view of his team’s leadership — what medical investigators learn about his brain could become an explanation, though not an excuse.

Serendipitously, as I was reading the Journal’s series, a bookshelf incident at home (long story) led to the exposure of my old copy of one of the great American novels -- Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I couldn’t help but think of Randle Patrick McMurphy, whose raucous mental-hospital experience ends in lobotomy, and of his eyewitness, Chief Broom, whose closing escape led to this desire: “I’d just like to look over the country around the gorge again, just to bring some of it clear in my mind again.”

Time and much better science than we had a half-century ago can bring clarity to the troubled territory of the brain. For many people, individuals and their families who suffer from brain disease, that clarity cannot come soon enough.