A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

Electroshock therapy introduced

Electric eels and fish were used by people in ancient times to treat headaches and mental illness. The practice came back in 1937 when Ugo Cerletti (1877-1963) and Lucino Bini (b. 1908) treated schizophrenic patients with applications of electricity.

They did not base their ideas on those of the ancients, but rather on the work of a Hungarian psychiatrist who had found that epilepsy and schizophrenia seem to have opposite chemical effects on the brain. He theorized that if he could induce an epileptic seizure in a schizophrenic person, it might alter the brain chemistry enough to offer some relief. He used drugs to cause the seizures, and it did seem to work.

In 1936, Cerletti (a neuropathologist and psychiatrist) and Bini (an excellent clinician and Cerletti's assistant) were researching this very idea. They were conducting animal experiments to investigate epilepsy, and realized that electricity could cause a shock or seizure as well as, and more easily than, chemicals. It seemed like it should work, but they killed a lot of lab animals by putting electrodes on either end of the animal. Bini realized that if they put the electrodes on either side of the head, a shock was induced but the heart was not damaged because it was out of the electric field. They used this technique successfully on dogs and in April 1938, they applied electroshock to their first human patient. This extremely schizophrenic man was able to live an apparently normal life with their therapy.

They published their work in Italian and later in English. Cerletti hoped to find a way to use the brain substance from animals that had undergone shock to alter the human patient's brain chemistry favorably. But this indirect method appeared slow and uneconomical. In the late 1930s and 1940s, electroconvulsive therapy took off, its popularity caused by the same factors that led to the acceptance of lobotomy. During World War II, interest in the treatment only increased, and was part of training for armed service medical personnel.

As with the lobotomy, the side effects of this practice came to be discovered with time. And accusations of inappropriate use -- to "cure" homosexuality, for example, or psoriasis -- increased. Above all, the arrival of Thorazine in psychiatric treatment in the early 1950s made electroconvulsive therapy a second choice or last resort for treating mental illness. Its popularity declined, and some states and countries ultimately legislated against its use.

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