How A Gunshot Wound Cured One Man’s OCD

“Surgery is the red flower that blooms among the leaves and thorns that are the rest of medicine.” —Richard Seltzer, Letters to a Young Doctor

In A Nutshell

It was reported in 1988 that a 19-year-old man attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head. Not only did the man survive the brain injury, but it cured him of his debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder without causing any other permanent brain damage. He went on to be a straight-A college student and live a relatively normal life.

The Whole Bushel

In 1988, Physician’s Weekly and the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that five years prior, a young man of 19 cured himself of symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with a gunshot wound to the head that he sustained in an attempted suicide. The man, referred to in the reports only as “George,” was tormented by his mental affliction and openly expressed thoughts that he would rather die than suffer from his compulsions, thoughts that his mother reportedly endorsed. Feeling that he had no other options, George shot himself with a .22-caliber rifle.

The bullet was lodged in the left frontal lobe of George’s brain. In an unlikely stroke of luck, this turned out to be the same area of the brain responsible for symptoms of OCD. In some severe cases of OCD, doctors have been known to remove a portion of the left frontal lobe as a last resort. At the time, surgeries of this sort occurred about 10 to 30 times per year in the United States. The results of these surgeries are mixed. In George’s case, surgeons were able to remove the bullet from his head, but could not extract all of the fragments.

OCD is a psychological disorder that causes victims to have repetitious thoughts and compulsions that greatly affect their daily lives. Prior to his suicide attempt, George would have to wash his hands hundreds of times per day, and he took showers often.

Three weeks after the surgery, George was moved to a hospital where his psychiatrist, Leslie Solyom, could monitor him. Solyom found that the man’s compulsions had all but vanished. Beyond that, careful tests for brain damage found that there was none. A comparison of IQ tests from before and after the incident showed no change in George’s intellect. He had lost no brain function.

Before his OCD had become debilitating, George was a straight-A student at his high school. Following his time in the hospital, he returned to school and attended college, retaining similar grades to what he had earned before his suicide attempt.

George’s case is similar to other staple psychological case studies, such as that of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who suffered an accident on the job when an explosive charge sent a tamping iron through his skull. Gage survived the accident and returned to his job after a few months of recovery. It became evident, however, that something had changed in Gage. The once mild-mannered man had become irreverent and short-tempered. This case study was the first of its kind, proving a correlation between the functions of the frontal lobes of the brain and personality. Luckily for George, his incident had a more positive end result.

Five years after sustaining the gunshot wound, George was only experiencing minor problems associated with his OCD. He found himself having to close windows twice to be certain that they were closed, and he paid particular attention to the cleanliness of dishes when he washed them. Compared to his earlier symptoms, however, his OCD was no longer a life-altering problem.

Show Me The Proof

Associated Press: Man ‘Cures’ Mental Illness By Shooting Self In Brain
LA Times: .22-Caliber Surgery: Suicide Bid Cures Psychological Disorder, Doctor Reports
NY Times: Brain Wound Eliminates Man’s Mental Illness
University of Akron: Phineas Gage