The re-emergence of psychiatric neurosurgery: insights from a cross-national study of newspaper and magazine coverage



Surgical approaches to treat psychiatric disorders have made a comeback. News media plays an essential role in exposing the public to trends in health care such as the re-emergence of therapeutic interventions in psychiatric neurosurgery that were set aside for decades, and in shaping attitudes and acceptance to them.


We conducted an analysis of media articles covering all types of psychiatric neurosurgery published in Canada, USA, Germany, and Spain between the years 1960 and 2015. We applied both quantitative and qualitative methods to elucidate patterns of reporting for conditions, themes and tone, across geographic regions, time, and for type of intervention.


Coverage of psychiatric neurosurgery has surged since 2001 and is largely consistent across the countries examined. It focuses on depression and deep brain stimulation, and is explicit about historical context. The tone of coverage becomes more positive for Canada, USA and Spain over time; the tone of coverage from Germany remains cautious. Identity and privacy are among the few ethical and philosophical issues raised, notably in the German press.


The focused and optimistic attention to contemporary psychiatric neurosurgery in the media, but inattention to ethical issues, places an extra burden on functional neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, and other frontline health professionals to attend to queries from patients and policy makers about the full range of relevant emergent and emerging interventions and the mental health issues to which they may beneficially apply.

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We would like to acknowledge the support of ERA-NET NEURON Team Grant: Ethical, Legal and Social (ELS) Issues #ERN-144241 and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of Germany (01GP1621A). We also thank the other members of the ERA-NET NEURON psychiatric neurosurgery team, including functional neurosurgeons and legal scholars, for their insightful comments regarding this subproject. We would also thank Julia Porter for data collection for Fig. 1. A reference list of the articles included in the sample can be obtained from the corresponding author.


We would like to acknowledge the support of ERA-NET NEURON Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Team Grant: Ethical, Legal and Social (ELS) Issues #ERN-144241 (JI) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research of Germany (01GP1621A; SM). The sponsor had no role in the design or conduct of this research. JI is Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics.

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Correspondence to Judy Illes.

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All authors certify that they have no affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

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This is a very interesting report on how scientific work surfaces to the public through the media. The authors find a shift towards a more positive tone in the news releases about psychiatric neurosurgery after the introduction of neuromodulation methods. However, data about objective results, risks and ethical concerns in those news are sometimes missing. It is our duty as neurosurgeons, and also that of journalists, to transmit the results of our research to the public in order to facilitate their widespread use, but also avoiding biases that may lead to improper expectations from potential users.

Juan Barcia

Madrid, Spain

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Cabrera, L.Y., Bittlinger, M., Lou, H. et al. The re-emergence of psychiatric neurosurgery: insights from a cross-national study of newspaper and magazine coverage. Acta Neurochir 160, 625–635 (2018).

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  • Psychiatric neurosurgery
  • International media coverage
  • Neuroethics
  • Medical ethics
  • Deep brain stimulation