Khloe Kardashian and Kendall Jenner sit in a luxe doctor’s office with white walls. Behind them, a window opens onto another room containing a futuristic blue brain scanner. The sisters are gazing at the doctor, an energetic middle-aged balding man wearing a white coat.
This is Dr. Daniel Amen, 68, a psychiatrist to stars who has also treated Justin Bieber, Bella Hadid, and Meghan Trainor. Amen offers “bespoke” mental health treatment informed by scans of the physical brain. The sisters are visiting him for a consultation that aired as part of their show The Kardashians, in October 2022.
“Kendall’s got a beautiful brain on the outside,” Amen says, gesturing at a computer screen showing four brightly colored images. “But if we look at her emotional brain, which is right here, it’s way too busy. Which is why she can struggle with anxiety.”
Amen moves onto Kardashian’s scans. “Is it worse than mine?” Jenner asks him. “It looks like it has more little dents.” Kardashian’s scan shows she “needs me,” Amen says.
“You can be anxious. And you worry. And you have trauma. Do you see this diamond?” Amen moves the mouse over one of the brain images. Kardashian nods. “So this will often go with emotional trauma.”
Kardashian goes on to tell Amen about her on-again, off-again “traumatic” relationship with ex-boyfriend, basketball star Tristan Thompson, who cheated on her while she was pregnant. By the end of the episode, both sisters appear to walk away from their appointment feeling validated.
But behind the sleek office and shiny equipment, all may not be as it seems.
Critics of Amen interviewed by The Daily Beast say he is a “charlatan” whose techniques are “snake oil.” They say his brain scans cannot show the things he claims and his celebrity endorsements and social media channels are selling expensive scans and false hope to people at their most vulnerable.
“When you see somebody who is so transparently grifting people and selling people snake oil, this person needs to be called out,” Dr. Sulman Aziz Mizra, a psychiatrist whose practice is near Amen’s Reston, Virginia, clinic, told The Daily Beast.
At the core of Amen’s business model is a brain-scanning technology known as single-photon emission computerized tomography or SPECT scanning. It is a form of nuclear medicine that involves injecting the patient with a radioactive substance and then using a SPECT scanner to take images of blood flow in the brain. Amen says these images can be used as part of a diagnosis that sets his methods apart from other psychiatrists and mental health practitioners.
But it is Amen’s use of SPECT that makes him so controversial amongst other psychiatrists and neuroscientists.
Mizra has taken to TikTok to respond to Amen’s videos on the platform, pushing back on his claims about SPECT and criticizing his methods.
“It’s preying on vulnerabilities,” Mizra says. “There isn’t a medical utility for these, the way they are being used.”
He is also critical of Amen’s supplement company, BrainMD, which produces many of the products he recommends in his clinics and on social media to improve brain health.
“It’s fantastic business,” says Mizra. “but it’s terrible ethically.”
Most of Amen’s patients are, of course, not celebrities like the Kardashians and Justin Bieber. Very often, they are people either facing their own mental health crisis or seeking help for their suffering children.
Mizra, who treats patients facing the same struggles, understands the appeal of Amen’s scans, especially his claims that they provide a snapshot of what is happening in the brain. When parents come to him asking if their children have depression and ADHD, Mizra says he and other mainstream psychiatrists can’t offer them certainties because there are none.
“There is no objective test. We can’t do a blood test for depression,” he says. “Dr. Amen has come in and found a way to provide that tangible evidence, whether it’s legitimate or not.”
And for some of Amen’s critics, this false promise is itself a form of harm.
“The harm is that it’s money that could be better spent on more effective intervention,” says Sam Goldstein, clinical director of the Neurology Learning and Behavior Center in Salt Lake City, Utah and a board-certified neuropsychologist. He has been following Amen’s career for 30 years—ever since the two men met on the conference circuit.
One of Goldstein’s personal mottos is “wrong information is worse than no information.” When it comes to Amen’s theory of the brain’s relationship to mental health, Goldstein disagrees with Amen’s characterization.
“Dan’s idea is: well, look, by understanding the physical brain we’re better able to understand and help the ‘human condition.’ But I think it’s an erroneous assumption. I think the physical brain and the mind have some relationship, but not great relationship,” Goldstein says, arguing that the relationship between the brain and “the mind” is not simple or obvious.
“Looking at the physical structure [of the brain] is okay but doesn’t get us very far. It’s got limited use because the interface is with an abstract phenomenon: the mind. Where is your mind? How does your mind work? Nobody understands that,” says Goldstein.
What the five experts interviewed by The Daily Beast agree on is that SPECT scanning is unnecessary and extremely expensive. Every expert interviewed by The Daily Beast said that standard clinical evaluations are all that is needed to make mental health diagnoses in the vast majority of cases.
“A psychiatrist who sits down and spends an hour or two hours with you will tell you everything you need to know,” Mizra says.
Amen vehemently disagrees. In a video posted to his TikTok last month, he described mainstream psychiatry as a “shitshow.”
“Most psychiatric problems are not mental health issues at all. Rather, they are brain health issues that steal people’s minds,” Amen said. “Get your brain right and your mind will follow.”
For Amen, SPECT technology is the core of what sets his treatment apart and allows his clinics to “accurately identify underlying brain issues that can contribute to symptoms,” according to his website.
“Adding neuroimaging tools like SPECT to day-to-day clinical practice can help move psychiatry forward by transforming mental health care, which can be stigmatizing and often shunned by the general public, to brain health care,” Amen wrote in a 2021 article for Frontiers In Psychiatry, in which he argued for increased use of the technology.
“Our database, with over 200,000 brain scans, helps us more successfully identify various types of ADD, anxiety, depression, and many other mental health conditions,” the Amen Clinics website says. “So you get the answers you’ve been looking for.”
Diane Hernandez, who worked for Amen Clinics for almost seven years, knows the business side all too well. She worked at the Amen corporate headquarters in Costa Mesa, California, starting as a sales representative in the call center in 2015. She had no prior health-care experience, and knew nothing about Amen’s work beyond a video she was shown.
“When I got there, I started seeing the potential from a sales mindset, and I said, this company is going to go big. Because you’re literally selling hope. And if you know how to sell it right, you’re going to make a lot of money,” Hernandez said.
She was all in, even having her own brain scanned. The doctor said she had road rage and signs of a concussion in childhood, she says.
During the years Hernandez worked in the call center it expanded dramatically, she says, growing from eight employees to around 40. All calls to the Amen Clinic were funneled through the center, and the reps would schedule appointments at clinics all over the county.
As time passed, her initial enthusiasm faded. She felt the company was misleading some desperate patients with the idea that Amen’s clinics were a one-stop shop that could fix any malady.
“I personally felt like I was scamming people sometimes,” she says. “At least 90 percent of the patients were diagnosed with ADHD or ADD to some degree. It almost felt like everyone had it.”
“We’re charging $4,000 to tell people they have ADHD and they have to take their supplements.”
In an email to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson for the Amen Clinics said that Amen runs a supplement company in order to “provide Amen Clinics patients and customers with the highest quality products to help their brains and bodies.”
Aware that all patients had to pay out of pocket, she would advise them to exhaust all the options covered by their insurance before coming to an Amen clinic, Hernandez said. That didn’t go down well with her superiors.
“I got a lot of negativity from management, because I wasn’t ‘selling,’” she says. “I had to do what helped me sleep at night.”
Hernandez stopped working for Amen Clinics in spring of 2022. She still believes the scans Amen offers might be valuable, but not at the price people are asked to pay.
“You’ve had outcomes where we gave them more hope, we sold them on the idea of hope, that there was a cure,” she says. “I feel for the families, especially the kids, because they’re so young. The adults as well because they spent years trying to find a cure.”
One of those desperate parents was Maria, who asked that we not use her real name due to a non-disclosure agreement she signed with Amen Clinics not to discuss her experience publicly.
Maria is a military veteran, and a mother of three living in Montgomery County, Virginia. In 2019, her teenage son began to struggle in school and show signs of ADHD. Maria began looking for mental health care that would be covered by the family’s insurer TriCare, a health insurance program for service members. She found that none of the very few local mental health providers were covered.
Instead, she was forced to look at out-of-pocket options to help her son. Without a formal diagnosis, it was difficult to get him any treatment. “If you have disposable income, you can get mental health treatment through these clinics that do not accept insurance. Where I live, there’s a lot of them like that,” she says.
That’s when Maria found the Amen Clinic in Reston, Virginia. The family could not afford to pay for the expensive brain scan and treatment, but the clinic advertised a loan service, Maria says. In desperation, Maria and her husband took out a $5,000 loan to cover the initial costs.
After her son’s brain was scanned at the Amen Clinic, he was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed a stimulant called Vyvanse, along with Amen’s own-brand supplements. That’s when the family’s problems with the clinic started, Maria said.
In order to get the cost of the pricey drug covered, Maria needed a paper prescription to bring by hand to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The clinic had instead sent the prescription to a CVS, where she would need to pay over $1,000 out-of-pocket for a 90-day supply of the pills, Maria says. She tried to get the error fixed so she could finally get her son’s medication.
For reasons she didn’t understand, Maria was unable to communicate directly with her son’s doctor, she says, and was instead shuttled through the front business office. “They were very callous,” Maria says. “They just ignored me.”
Maria became so frustrated with the clinic that she contacted Virginia’s Department of Health Professions, a state’s licensing body. She discovered her son’s doctor no longer worked at the Amen Clinic. The Amen Clinic told Maria that she would need to pay an additional $200 to see another doctor there who could reissue her son’s prescription. She was furious.
“Why should I give you another $200? Why can’t you just give me a paper prescription? There was no reason. They just wanted to make money,” Maria said.
Enraged, Maria wrote a negative review of the clinic on Yelp. The clinic offered to refund half of the $5,000 she had paid for her son’s scan and work-up. But in order to get the money, she had to sign an agreement to “refrain from posting any social media or online postings relating to Amen Clinics,” according to a document viewed by The Daily Beast.
“I have not found any value with those brain scans, nor have I found any value to the evaluation they gave him,” she says. “My overall impression is that although they are offering a human service, a health service, a mental wellness service, that’s not their priority. It seems to me that their priority is their business interests.”
Three years later, her son still doesn’t have the help he needs, Maria says. Space opened up briefly at Walter Reed and he was able to see a doctor and get a prescription for his ADHD. But when he turned 18, they discharged him.
“We are right back to no meds, and no services,” Maria says.
Despite their negative experience, the family is still paying hundreds of dollars to Amen’s supplement company, Maria says. Her son is still taking four Amen-owned BrainMD supplement packages that the clinic recommended, including Brain MD Omega-3 Power, containing fish oil, and Brain MD Focus & Energy, containing green tea, ginseng and ashwagandha extract.
Without any medication, Maria says, it’s their only option at the moment.
She doesn’t blame the doctor her son saw for what happened. She blames the business side of the Amen Clinics.
“It’s greed and corruption. The regular old sins,” Maria says.
Amen, 68, is the CEO and chairman of a multimillion-dollar suite of businesses that include 10 brain-scanning clinics across the United States, a supplement company, an online “university” providing certification in Amen techniques, as well as best-selling books, PBS specials, a podcast and slick social media presence.
Amen’s website boasts recommendations from other celebrity doctors, including Dr. Phil, and recently failed Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is quoted on the clinic’s website saying that Amen is “one of the most gifted minds in medicine.”
The psychiatrist’s career began with a medical degree from the now-defunct Oral Roberts Medical School, a private evangelical Christian college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He followed this with a psychiatric internship and residency at Walter Reed. In 1989 he authored a magazine article titled “How to Get Out of Your Own Way,” and was asked to appear on CNN, according to The Washington Post.
“It was then I realized I could have an impact far, far beyond my office,” he told the newspaper.
Since then he’s been boosted by mainstream media platforms and received support from PBS, which has aired thousands of hours of Amen-produced TV spots promoting his ideas on brain health. He has appeared on numerous TV shows, including The View and CBS This Morning. (In 2018, Amen and his wife Tana authored an article for The Daily Beast, which no longer appears on the site, in which they advised readers on how to maintain a “healthy, sharp brain.”)
Much of Amen’s career appears to have been influenced by his Christian faith. For a time he attended the Saddleback megachurch and collaborated with its evangelical pastor Rick Warren, and controversial “functional medicine” advocate, Mark Hyman. Together the three men produced The Daniel Plan, a biblically inspired 40-day program to encourage weight loss among the church’s congregation.
Throughout his career, Amen has insisted that conventional psychiatry is limited because it doesn’t study the physical organ–the brain–that it is seeking to heal. SPECT scanning, he says, allows him and other Amen doctors to do just that. As well as aiding in the diagnosis of mental illness such as depression and anxiety, and conditions such as ADHD, Amen’s website says, SPECT scans can help physicians ask better question about “head injuries, infections (such as Lyme disease), exposure to toxins (such as mold), past emotional traumas.”
It is Amen’s beliefs about SPECT scanning that have brought the most damning criticism from the wider scientific community. Critics say the technology, first developed in the 1960s, is outdated and cannot show the things that Amen claims it does.
In conventional medicine, SPECT scanning has limited clinical use, mostly for identifying strokes, epilepsy or severe cases of dementia. But it cannot be used to make the kinds of psychiatric diagnosis that Amen says, according to his critics.
A 2012 profile of Amen in The Washington Post described him as “the most popular psychiatrist in America.” But in the same piece, his work was slammed as the “modern equivalent of phrenology,” the popular Victorian-era pseudoscience, by Jeffrey Lieberman, former president of the American Psychiatric Association and professor of psychiatry at Columbia University.
“The claims he makes are not supported by reliable science, and one has to be skeptical about his motivation,” Lieberman said in the article.
Other neuroscientists and psychiatrists interviewed by the newspaper described Amen’s methods as “a sham” and his claims about SPECT as “outrageous.” The American Psychiatric Association (APA), the foremost professional body in the field, found in a 2018 study on clinical application of brain imaging that “there are currently no brain imaging biomarkers that are clinically useful for any diagnostic category in psychiatry.”
One of Amen’s most vociferous critics is Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired family physician who blogs about “pseudoscience and questionable medical practices” as The SkepDoc. Amen “charges patients thousands of dollars to inject them with radioactive compounds and show them pretty colored pictures of their brains without any credible evidence that it adds to the diagnostic or treatment processes,” Hall told The Observer in 2016.
In 2017, The Daily Beast reporter Eliza Shapiro visited Amen’s New York clinic and underwent brain scanning. She concluded that “the chance to peer into my own brain revealed surprisingly little about how my mind works.” Amen advised Shapiro she had “longstanding trauma” and advised her to have a protein shake with kale and spinach for breakfast every morning and take two Amen-branded supplements.
Amen has vigorously defended his record, then and now.
“There are 2,700 scientific articles on my Web site that show the underlying basis for our work,” Amen told The Washington Post, “None of [his detractors] have called me and said, ‘You’ve got the world’s largest database of scans, what can I learn from you?’ Instead, they call me a snake oil salesman and a charlatan.”
In the 10 years since the criticism of Amen’s methods were first widely aired, his business has only grown and flourished. In 2012, Amen told the newspaper his clinics made $20 million the previous year. Since then, he has opened six more facilities and rapidly expanded his business.
“It has been Dr. Daniel Amen and Amen Clinics’ mission for over three decades to help thousands of patients have a better brain and better life,” a spokesperson from the clinic told The Daily Beast by email. “Amen Clinics has operated for 33 years and has seen over 100,000 patients from 155 countries.”
The clinic also stated that Amen and his colleagues have published “over 70 scientific studies” in prominent science and medical journals, and cited one 2013 article on a study by the clinic finding that 75 percent of patients surveyed experienced “significant clinical improvements” after six months.
For those critics who have followed his career, Amen’s success is difficult to stomach. In 2010, Bryon Adinoff, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, exchanged a series of letters with Amen in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
“For more than two decades, Dr. Amen has persisted in using scientifically unfounded claims to diagnose and treat patients,” Adinoff wrote, with his co-author Michael Devous. “We encourage physicians to remain vigilant of unproven approaches practiced by our peers and to immediately report these trespasses to their state medical boards.”
“Thoughtful clinicians would never use SPECT in isolation, and contrary to what was written about me, I have never recommended such use,” Amen wrote in response. “The hope that SPECT and other imaging modalities will be as routine and useful to psychiatry as imaging the heart is to cardiology has animated my practice for nearly 20 years. It, indeed, is starting to happen. My hope is that our journal will help translate imaging research into clinical practice rather than threaten practitioners who have been trying to make it happen.”
More than a decade later, Adinoff is frustrated that no medical bodies or professional institutions have managed to curb Amen’s rise.
“There’s no science to back up what he’s saying. He’s giving radioactive compounds to children that are completely unjustified. Why hasn’t anyone done anything about that?” Adinoff said. “What irks us is that he’s lying, or he’s deluded himself.”
Adinoff is frustrated that people are still choosing to undergo Amen’s SPECT scans, despite the lack of evidence. But recent patients of the Amen Clinic interviewed by The Daily Beast say they pursued the treatment out of desperation over their deteriorating mental health and have been left hopeless and disappointed by their experience at the clinics.
Jay, 27, was one of those patients drawn to the clinic by a sense of hope after years of struggle. (Jay is not his real name. He asked to use a pseudonym due to sensitive mental health information he is disclosing).
Jay began experiencing depression as a young teen and cycled through various medications and therapy, none of which helped. After being unable to keep up with school work due to worsening mental health, Jay was forced to drop out of college earlier this year. His mother had seen ads for Amen Clinics on Instagram, and showed Jay a video. He was unsure but his parents agreed to pay for the treatment.
“Even I, who have had this experience for so long, and know there’s no easy fix, I was hoping for an easy fix,” he says.
In May, Jay traveled to the Costa Mesa clinic and underwent two days of tests, brain scans and clinical evaluation, which cost his family $4,495 in total. It took more than two weeks to get the results.
In a follow-up appointment, Jay was shown his scan by a doctor on Zoom.
“It’s not supposed to have holes in it,” Jay said. “But my brain has holes in it.”
The doctor suggested a “scalloping” pattern in Jay’s brain could be a sign of “toxicity,” perhaps from drugs, alcohol, environmental toxins, or oxygen deprivation.
“A lot of this stuff was like a horoscope, where it shotguns a lot of things at you,” Jay says. “This one line out of all them matches.”
Jay shared his treatment plan with The Daily Beast, which he did not receive until two months after his first call with the doctor. In it, Jay is prescribed a mood stabilizer, alongside Amen’s Brain and Brain and Body Power Max supplements. It also suggested he eat a Mediterranean diet, do high-intensity interval training three times a week (“as effective as 12 sessions of psychotherapy”), and try “having fun on purpose.”
“Their big selling point is that their treatment is individualized because of the brain scans,” Jay says. “Everything they said is just stuff you can find by Googling how to get out of depression.”
Despite his disappointment with the care he received at the clinic, Jay understands why Amen’s approach is attractive to people who have been struggling with long-term mental-health problems. The scan seems to offer a concrete image of an often intangible kind of suffering.
“Here’s the part of your brain that is causing you problems, and we can fix it. It’s so simple that way. I think that’s a significant part of the attraction. There’s an easy answer to the problem,” Jay says. “The idea of that was so enticing and I found myself hoping for some kind of alternative diagnosis I could take a medication for, and everything would be fine.”
Now, Jay is thinking about the cost of the treatment.
“The $5,000 for the appointment is the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
A 30-day supply of the supplements the clinic recommended costs $145.95. One of the reports Jay was sent home with offered a promo code for a subscription to BrainFitLife, an online course from Amen costing $147.
“They’re triple-dipping at this point,” Jay says. “I think they do more harm than good by just existing.”
Emma, 25, agrees. (Emma requested to use a pseudonym, as, like Jay, she is discussing sensitive mental health details.)
Emma struggled throughout her teens with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. In high school she began to get seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. In her twenties, she became addicted to alcohol. She had managed to stay sober for a year, when she was recently hit by a severe bout of obsessive-compulsive disorder that led to her developing dermatillomania, a compulsion to pick at and injure the skin.
“There was a general family desperation to find a new answer,” Emma says. Her mother had been watching Amen’s TikTok channel, and suggested that Emma should get her brain scanned. “She was enraptured by this holistic, individualized approach.”
Emma agreed and visited the Amen Clinic in Reston, Virginia. After filling out extensive paperwork about her clinical history and taking tests and surveys, Emma was shocked when the doctor who evaluated her appeared to know nothing about her past.
“The doctor asked me, ‘From this list, what do you identify with?’ As though I hadn’t filled out all of that paperwork,” she says. “It felt like going to a psychic and getting a cold reading of my palm.”
He lectured her about alcohol use, she says, despite the fact she was sober. He refused to promise he would not disclose her nicotine use to her mother, despite the fact that Emma is an adult.
Worst of all, Emma says, was that when she asked about alternative treatments, the doctor just pushed Amen’s Brain MD supplements.
“The reason that I’ve had to go on three runs of antibiotics because I’m picking my skin obsessively, because I want to kill myself, is not because I have a vitamin D deficiency,” she says. “I can’t even ask a question about a viable alternative treatment without being misdirected to their money-making schemes.”
In response to a question about how often patients at Amen’s clinic are recommended Amen-branded supplements are part of their treatment, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “each patient is not going to have the same treatment protocol, is not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan when it comes to medical care for mental health.”
Emma was left feeling more hopeless after her visit to the Amen Clinic than before she went. In her feedback to the clinic she wrote that “Amen has made me feel a profound denial of my personhood.”
“There’s an interpersonal level of harm that I think happens when organizations or corporations such as this provide so much false hope to people,” she says. “That doctor did not see me as a person.”
Citing medical privacy laws, the Amen Clinic declined to comment on Emma or Jay’s cases.
For many scientists who have followed Amen’s rise, the problem is bigger than the man himself.
Robert Burton, a renowned neuroscientist and author, engaged in a back-and-forth debate with Amen on Salon in 2008, after Amen appeared on a PBS special claiming it was possible to “prevent Alzheimer’s disease” by making your “brain great.” Speaking more than a decade later, Burton, now in his eighties, described debating Amen as “like trying to argue with theology.”
“He’s just one amongst millions of fraudulent physicians,” Burton said. “For me the real issue is how has it come to a point in America where so-called trusted institutions don’t care.”
Burton and Adinoff believe stations like PBS, which have granted Amen airtime to promote his ideas, are culpable in the spread of medical misinformation which over the years has grown into an epidemic.
“[They] have given him enormous play, and people tend to trust PBS. And yet, here they are giving all this free access to a charlatan,” Adinoff says.
A spokesperson for PBS said in an email to The Daily Beast that Amen’s programs are “not distributed by PBS.” However, Amen’s 14th television special Change Your Brain Heal Your Mind with Daniel Amen, MD has appeared on at least three PBS-affiliated stations in the last three years.
“Can people know the difference between scientific method and pure snake-oilism?” Burton asks.
Amen’s success is linked to widespread skepticism of science, Adinoff believes.
“It says something about the way [people] seek out health care and the things they believe. Trust in science, in academics, in science-based research, empirical research, is lacking,” he says.
Burton and Adinoff also argued that there is a reluctance on the part of medical boards and professional organizations to intervene against physicians who are not breaking the law.
“If this guy Amen really believes, albeit falsely, that he’s doing good, and there’s nothing wrong with making money in America, and if you believe in capitalism,” Burton says, “then he’s not doing anything wrong.”
“It’s a free-for-all out there, of which Daniel Amen is just the tip of the iceberg.”