Happy Birthday “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”: A Momentous Tale in the Quest for an Effective and Ethical Approach to Psychosurgery

E. Stip, S. F. Javaid, K. Abdel Aziz, D. Arnone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The anniversary of the publication of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' by Ken Kesey offers an opportunity for reflection on the use of neurosurgery in psychiatry. We used a narrative, historical and dialectical method to deliver an account of the controversial subject. A balanced representation of the negative and positive aspects, acknowledging some of the questionable ethical practices while describing well-reasoned applications is provided. It includes neurosurgeons, psychiatrists who have embraced these procedures with unwarranted enthusiasm and those who have opposed. Neurosurgical techniques for the treatment of severe mental disorders have evolved from rudimentary procedures which were used to ‘correct' unwanted behaviours associated with a wide range of severe mental disorders to more refined and selective approaches used as a last resort to treat specific mental health conditions. In the absence of specific aetiological models to guide ablative surgical targets, non-ablative, stimulatory techniques have more recently been developed to allow reversibility when surgical treatment fails to obtain a sizeable improvement in quality of life. The subject is concretely illustrated by two eloquent clinical images: one on a series of brain computed tomography scans carried out on a Canadian population of subjects, who underwent leukotomy decades ago, and the other more contemporary on an implantation surgery to epidural stimulation. Alongside technical advances in psychosurgery, a regulatory framework has gradually developed to ensure vigilance in the appropriateness of patients’ selection. Nevertheless, harmonisation of protocols around the world is necessary to ensure consistency in obtaining and maintaining the highest possible ethical standards for the benefit of patients. If the neurosciences promise today, in their new, better framed, and reversible applications, to provide answers to unmet therapeutic needs, we still must remain attentive to drifts linked the introduction of intrusive technologies for purposes of domination or behaviour modification that would impede our individual freedom.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)887-893
Number of pages7
JournalCanadian Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • brain imaging
  • catatonia
  • deep brain stimulation
  • epidural stimulation
  • ethics
  • history of psychiatry
  • leucotomy
  • lobotomy
  • philosophy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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