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Rück makes reference to a series of studies reporting personality change following anterior capsulotomy, including his recent review of 26 patients undergoing thermal capsulotomy for anxiety (Rück et al, 2003). He raises interesting questions about the prevalence of personality change following certain (if not all) neurosurgical procedures for mental disorder, and such questions remain, we believe, essentially unaddressed by previous research. Rück's rate of apparent personality change following anterior capsulotomy is comparatively high at approximately 30% of patients. This rate is higher than those rates reported in earlier literature, which suggest rates of up to 10% for stereotactic subcaudate tractotomy (Ström-Olsen & Carlisle, 1971; Goktepe et al, 1975) and 2% for stereotactic cingulotomy (Dougherty et al, 2002). However, 24% of patients undergoing limbic leucotomy had transient apathy which resolved fully (Montoya et al, 2002).

In addition to the lack of uniformity of measurement across studies, another key difference may lie in the fact that many of the larger studies included patients with a variety of diagnoses, including depressive disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorder. In fact, non-OCD anxiety disorders made up a small percentage of most of the studies cited above, whereas Rück's study sample comprised entirely patients diagnosed with non-OCD anxiety disorder.

The lesions of anterior capsulotomy disrupt the continuity of the frontostriatal–pallidal–thalamic circuits which are believed to be dysfunctional in OCD (Modell et al, 1989). Important connections between the orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cingulate regions and the thalamus also lie in the anterior part of the internal capsule and are thought to play an important role in the pathogenesis of major depressive disorder (Tekin & Cummings, 2002).

Most psychiatrists, neurologists and neurosurgeons would probably predict high rates of serious psychopathology – including personality changes – if such lesions were made within ‘healthy brains’. If the existing literature can be considered reliable, including the report of Rück and colleagues, it is quite remarkable that the reported rates of significant frontal psychopathology are so infrequent. Hence, three possibilities (at least) must be considered:

  1. (a) that neuropsychological and personality screening for frontal impairment has been grossly inadequate in almost all studies;

  2. (b) that the deleterious effects of frontal surgery on patients with chronic intractable affective disorders may be minimised because the target brain structures are already dysfunctional, perhaps with important frontal functions being undertaken by non-frontal structures (such plasticity of mammalian brain function is plausible, see e.g. Kolb & Gibb, 1993);

  3. (c) different forms of psychiatric disorder may be associated with different risks of adverse consequences following NMD; for example, thermal capsulotomy for non-OCD anxiety disorders may present a higher risk of frontal psychopathology than capsulotomy for OCD or depression.

In reality, the true picture may represent a combination of influences from these three factors. What is clear is that all NMD must be accompanied by detailed prospective audit with comprehensive evaluation of ‘frontal’ neuropsychology and personality functioning.

EDITED BY STANLEY ZAMMIT

Declaration of interest

K.M. has received payment for lectures on the management of depression from. various pharmaceutical companies.

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Goktepe, E. O. Young, L. B. & Bridges, P. K. (1975) A further review of the results of stereotactic subcaudate tractotomy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 270280.
Kolb, B. & Gibb, R. (1993) Possible anatomical basis of recovery of function after neonatal frontal lesions in rats. Behavioural Neuroscience, 107, 799811.
Modell, J. G. Mountz, J. M. Curtis, G. C. et al (1989) Neurophysiologic dysfunction in basal ganglia/limbic striatal and thalamocortical circuits as a pathogenetic mechanism of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 1, 2736.
Montoya, A. Weiss, A. P. Price, B. H. et al (2002) Magnetic resonance imaging-guided stereotactic limbic leukotomy for treatment of intractable psychiatric disease. Neurosurgery, 50, 10431049.
Rück, C. Andreewitch, S. Flyckt, K. et al (2003) Capsulotomy for refractory anxiety disorders: long-term follow-up of 26 patients. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 513521.
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Tekin, S. & Cummings, J. L. (2002) Frontal -subcortical neuronal circuits and clinical neuropsychiatry: an update. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53, 647654.