Mention the term “shock treatment,” and just about everyone recoils in horror.
Indeed, the practice of sending electrical currents through the brain has gotten some very bad press over the years.
Now there’s a brand-new twist on shock therapy. It offers a much more nuanced, gentler approach than what most people envision. And new research indicates that it could have a wide range of advantages for millions of patients dealing with the effects of strokes and other damage to the brain. It could also help people manage pain.
Not only that, but – incredibly – shock therapy has now been shown to aid in the learning of new skills. The U.S. military even hopes to use this new technology to train soldiers.
I’ll give you all the details in a moment. But first, a bit of history.
This Might Lead to a U-Turn in Public Opinion…
The controversial method of therapy, first used in the 1930s, produces seizures in the brain – a practice that has been shown to have therapeutic benefits. The exact mechanism of action isn’t really understood, but it seems to “jumpstart” the brain in depressed patients.
The practice first came under a cloud in the 1970s with two very visible depictions of the practice – one real and one fictional.
The real one actually helped steer the course of the 1972 presidential election (which remains one of the great train wrecks in recent U.S. politics).
At the time, Sen. George McGovern hoped to unseat Pres. Richard Nixon. But just shortly after securing the Democratic nomination, a bombshell hit the headlines – McGovern’s running mate Sen. Thomas Eagleton suffered from depression. Even worse, the Missouri Democrat confirmed he had received what is officially known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) on at least three occasions during the 1960s.
That worried voters. Could Eagleton handle the pressures of the office? What would happen if McGovern died and left him in the White House?
McGovern’s reaction to the news didn’t help matters. He first stated he was behind Eagleton “one thousand percent;” then, bowing to pressure, he dumped his running mate. But it was too late. McGovern couldn’t live it down; it was one of the reasons he lost in a landslide to Nixon.
Just three years later, the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” took the nation by storm.
Set in a mental ward in Salem, Ore., it showed the dark, painful side of shock treatment, as the vile Nurse Ratched used it to punish her wards. The portrayal of shock therapy wasn’t quite accurate – most patients give consent and are put under anesthesia during treatment – but it stuck.
The film went on to win five Oscars. Jack Nicholson bagged his first “Best Actor” award for his portrayal of Randle McMurphy, a criminal who is feigning mental illness to escape hard labor. In the movie, after a group therapy session turns into a brawl instigated by Randle, he is sent up to “the shock shop.”
The practice has gotten a very bad rap, but it is still used today, because there are undeniable therapeutic benefits.
And we may have just started to tap them.
New Findings and Promising New Uses
The most recent progress report comes from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md. The center ranks as a world leader in treating children with disorders of the brain and spinal cord.
In a new study published last week in the Journal of Neurophysiology, a KKI research team said transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS). This approach has a complex name. But at heart, it’s a simple process. Here’s how tDCS works.
Patients wear a small headband with two electrodes, one for positive and one for negative charges. Doctors position the electrodes on the scalp and over parts of the cerebellum – which controls motor function and some learning – and the device delivers a steady flow of low-level current into the brain.
(The tDCS device relies on battery power, which means it can’t deliver enough voltage to cause any serious injuries. But just in case, it contains a safety fuse, too.)
This new method shows great promise in teaching people how to walk correctly again, after suffering a stroke or other brain injury. They said patients who used the system retained their training much longer than those who didn’t.
For millions of Americans, the study’s results are good news indeed.
Fact is, strokes remain the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., after cancer and heart disease.
A stroke occurs when a clogged or burst artery stops blood flow to the brain. This deprives the brain of needed oxygen and causes the affected cells to die. When that occurs, the functions of the body parts they control are impaired or lost.
Each year about 700,000 people suffer strokes. Experts say they cost the U.S. a combined $45 billion a year, of which about half goes to medical care and rehab.
As it turns out, these headbands aren’t limited just to better walking. Speech therapist and researcher Jenny Crinion at UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London uses them to treat speech defects caused by strokes.
Researchers also use the method to teach new skills. Just ask Roi Cohen Kadosh. He’s a researcher at the University of Oxford in England who found that applying about 15 minutes of gentle jolts made people better at math.
Here’s what’s especially interesting to me. The Kennedy Krieger team found they could actually set the pace of progress; using more positive current increased learning, while more negative current reduced it.
The Pentagon is testing it as well. Last year, a research arm funded a low-voltage brain study. It showed that soldiers getting the treatment performed better at a video game used to train soldiers for duty in Iraq.
Yet I think even that is just the beginning.
In the Era of Radical Change, we are destined to learn much more about how the brain works. We’re pouring billions into this field for good reason.
The brain is the key to learning why humans are so much smarter than other animals. And it’s vital for treating diseases, from Alzheimer’s to depression, as well as head injuries.
I believe that in the years ahead we will see a steady stream of breakthroughs that will improve and enhance the complex instrument that is the human brain.
Thus, if these particular headbands don’t find wide use in the near future, I’m not worried. Something even better is bound to emerge.