A lobotomy is a surgical procedure which involves removing or damaging parts of the frontal cortex. Lobotomies were historically used to treat patients with psychological illnesses and behavioral disorders; in the 1950s, they were largely phased out and replaced with medications, talk therapy, and other forms of treatment. As a general rule, lobotomies are not performed today, and many people think that they are actually quite barbaric.
When performed successfully, a lobotomy could result in significant behavioral changes for the patient. For psychotic patients, lobotomies were sometimes beneficial, calming the patient so that he or she could live a relatively normal life. Lobotomies are also famous for causing a flat affect and general decreased responsiveness; this was viewed as a benefit of the lobotomy historically by some advocates of the procedure.
However, lobotomies can also go very wrong. The brain is an extremely delicate and very complex organ, and in the era when lobotomies were performed, people did not know much about the brain, as they did not have the benefit of a wide range of scientific tools to visualize the brain and its activities. At its worst, a lobotomy could cause death, but it could also cause serious brain damage, resulting in what was essentially retardation of the patient. Patients could also enter comas and persistent vegetative states after lobotomies.
The earliest lobotomies appear to have been performed in 1892, when Dr. Gottlieb Burckhardt experimented with what he called a leucotomy in Switzerland. Two of his patient died, so the procedure could hardly be said to be a screaming success, but it planted the seeds for Portuguese doctors Antonio Moniz and Almeida Lima, who worked on a version of the lobotomy in the 1930s which involved cutting holes in the patient's skull and injecting the frontal cortex with alcohol to kill part of the brain. Moniz actually won a Nobel Prize in 1949 for this work.
When the leucotomy crossed the pond to the United States, where it was perfected by Dr. Walter Freeman, the name changed to “lobotomy.” Freeman discovered that it was possible to access the frontal cortex through the eye sockets, performing the so-called “ice pick lobotomy,” which essentially scrambled the connections of the brain.
By the 1950s, doctors were turning to less extreme methods to treat patients with psychiatric disorders, and by the 1970s, the lobotomy had been largely banned in most of the developed world. Today, doctors sometimes perform what is known as psychosurgery, a form of neurosurgery which involves selective destruction of the brain, to treat very specific conditions. Generally such surgery is treated as an alternative of last resort.