As doctors in China perform brain operations for illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to depression, some foreign scientists fear the procedures harken back to the dark days of neurosurgery. (See related article
In China, a highly-controversial procedure that involves burning parts of the brain is being heavily prescribed for myriad psychiatric problems. Dr. Wang Yifang, head of neurosurgery at 454 Hospital of the People's Liberation Army in Nanjing, has performed nearly 1,000 of the surgeries since 2004.
Mi Zhantao, 25, second from left, was battling depression and had trouble socializing. Doctors said he might have schizophrenia. Within hours of meeting the man, surgeons drilled tiny holes in the young man's skull, inserting a 19-centimeter-long needle and burning small areas of brain tissue thought to be causing the young man's problems.
The Chinese government banned the brain surgery for use on drug addicts in November 2004, but the procedure is still permitted for mental illness.
The surgeries performed at No. 454 Hospital, pictured, are a symptom of the radical problems plaguing China's broken health care system, which has left hospitals across the country with scant public funding and hungry for profit wherever they can find it.
The Chinese health care system is vulnerable to abuse because doctors make as much as 90% of their income through bonuses tied to the business they generate, according to Henk Bekedam, who until recently was the World Health Organization's chief representative in China..
No. 454 Hospital promotes the surgery aggressively, printing pamphlets featuring success stories, and runs a hotline patients can call for more information. The doctor who performs the procedures at the hospital says the surgery works for 93% of patients.
An article that ran in Yangtse Evening News, a local newspaper in Jiangsu province, in July 2004, touted the benefits of the brain surgery offered at No. 454 Hospital and helped convince Mr. Mi's parents that the procedure could help their son. The same article persuaded the family of Deng Jian, left, to look into the surgery for their daughter. Ms. Deng, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, hasn't been able to walk on her own since the operation. Her family sued the hospital for damages and won an award of more than 360,000 yuan.
Mr. Mi's parents, on either side of him at left, spent 36,000 yuan, or about $4,800, the equivalent of four years' income, on the operation. Mr. Mi's mother says the surgery did nothing but leave their son with a partially limp right arm and blurred speech. Wang Yifang, the surgeon, says he checked the medical records and, as far as he knows, the patient left the hospital uninjured.
In mainstream medicine, the experimental brain surgery performed on Mr. Mi is a last resort for mental illness. In the case of schizophrenia, it is not done anywhere in the U.S. A scan of Mr. Mi's brain, at left..
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