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When thinking about the history of how mental disorders were understood and treated in the past, you can’t help but let out a huge sigh of relief for not having to experience a trip to the doctor’s in ye olde times. Oh, the coziness of today’s overly-medicated and hyper-digitalized world does have its perks.

 

“Before the discovery of psychotropic drugs, one of doctors’ favorite methods of finding cures for the mentally ill, was to serendipitously experiment on the poor suckers and see what comes of it.”

 

Before the discovery of psychotropic drugs, one of doctors’ favorite methods of finding cures for the mentally ill, was to serendipitously experiment on the poor suckers and see what comes of it. On one such treatment two Italian physicians happened to stumble upon in 1938, namely electroconvulsive shock therapy, or ECT.

 

Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini were, for some reason, quite attracted to the idea of inducing convulsions in human patients with the help of electricity. Luckily, they did question the safety of such a procedure, especially after having observed that their animal experiments usually ended up burning to a crisp. The main problem was that by placing the electrodes in the mouth and ahem, other end of the animal, the shock would go through the heart and stop its beating entirely.

 

“Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini were, for some reason, quite attracted to the idea of inducing convulsions in human patients with the help of electricity. Luckily, they did question the safety of such a procedure, especially after having observed that their animal experiments usually ended up burning to a crisp.”

 

But Lady Luck was on their side, when on an impromptu visit to one of Rome’s slaughterhouses, Cerletti and Bini noticed that before butchers cut open their pigs’ throats, they would place electrodes on both sides of their head, which made the poor animals unconscious, but not (fully) dead. So, unfortunately, the two started conducting their own series of questionably successful experiments on dogs. Which, of course, meant that they would later try it out on human patients as well, in the hopes of curing depression and schizophrenia.

 

Their first trial consisted of rounding up a 39-year-old schizophrenic found wandering at the train station. Initially, the two were alarmed by the patient’s temporarily suspended breathing that resulted in giving him that “cadaverous cyanosis”, which is just a fancy way of saying he turned blue. But after administering eleven more rounds, because by that point, why not, the patient not only lived to tell the tale and was quoted saying that he felt as if he was awaken from a sleep, he also reportedly got cured of his hallucinations and notions of persecution.

 

So, in Cerletti’s poetic words “thus occurred the first electrically produced convulsion in man, which I at once named electroshock.” This procedure is sometimes used even in current times, in patients with drug-resistant depression. Better get those endorphins running, then!  

 

O.T.P. November 10, 2015 Sources: Morton, A. Myers, Happy Accidents. Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century New York, Arcade Publishing, 2007.

1 comments on Burning one’s brain to a crisp. Treating mental illness with Electroconvulsive Shock Therapy
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    Christina Umbridge August 17th, 2016 at 7:27 pm
    Ugh… unfortunately such procedures continued to be used a long time after these initial experiments. Talk about frying one’s brains…some hell of a therapeutic session
    Reply