Do you remember the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”? The main character McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is "treated" at the “shock shop” after he caused an upset among the patients.
The treatment, correctly known as Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), didn’t seem to reduce McMurphy’s ‘naughtiness’. But it did give the general practice of Electrical Stimulation “very bad press” according to Heidi Johansen-Berg, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford (ref. 1).
With recent positive clinical results in the area of electrical stimulation treatment, I thought it may be interesting to review if that bad press was indeed justified. Was that “Bad Press” Justified?
This blog clarifies why the negativity may have been fair in the past, with ECT in particular. But today, there are several examples of how non-invasive electrical stimulation treatments may have healthy therapeutic benefits, including, as you will soon discover, boosting your memory power! Non-invasive’ means that the methods use low pulse electrical current, and do not involve implanting electrodes into the brain.
It is true that ECT is arguably the most risky of the non-invasive electrical stimulation treatments for severe mental illnesses. Certainly, in its early days it was not as safe as today’s versions appear to be, and it was originally rated as ‘High Risk” by the FDA.
That is because the patient must be hospitalised, anesthetized and supervised by a team of specialists, who administer a relatively high current electrical shock to the patient’s brain. The patient then experiences a controlled seizure lasting less than two minutes. Short-term side effects such headaches, memory lapses and muscle pain may occur, but are rare.
This doesn’t mean the treatment is ineffective or dangerous when applied correctly.
Indeed, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) (ref. 2) says, ECT is acknowledged as “one of the most studied and most effective treatments for selected severe mental illness such as major depression with psychotic features. ECT is a treatment of choice for over tens of thousands of Americans each year. Since it was first performed, ECT has become safer and more successful in helping people who require immediate treatment, people who cannot be treated with psychiatric medications, and people who have not responded to other psychiatric treatments.”
Similarly, according to Wikipedia, ECT is usually “used as a last line of intervention for major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and catatonia” (ref. 3) in conjunction with anaesthetic.
How Effective are the other Forms of Non-Invasive Electrical Stimulation?
Electrical stimulation in its various forms such as - Electromagnetic stimulation therapy, Electrical muscle stimulation, Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy, Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) – appear to have been used for centuries to help the body therapeutically.
For example, Dennis Stillings (ref. 4) traces the historical use of electricity to treat pain. Remarkably, this journey begins with the 1st Century A.D. practice of using the torpedo fish (which is like a live electric ray fish) to help address gout!
Others (ref. 5) have continued the journey by describing how electrical therapeutic treatments have developed over time, and may help with health issues such as: brain stimulation to address neurological and cognitive imbalances; stimulating muscles to contract and relax; stimulating nerves to decrease pain; increasing blood flow to speed healing and reduce inflammation, and stimulating cells to reproduce and accelerate healing.
Personally, I can vouch for the efficacy of Electromagnetic stimulation therapy – EST - (ref. 6). I, and others I know, have used it to help reduce the pains, spasms and inflammation of Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis (PPMS).
This therapy produces gentle, low induction impulses which help to stimulate the production of nitric oxide. This in turn may lead to better blood supply and circulation, when cells become better oxygenated, and more able to detoxify, regenerate and reproduce. In this environment the immune system may be more likely to function effectively.
How about Electrical Stimulation for Brain and Memory Boosting?
Currently, the results of a study at Northwestern University in the US (ref. 7) are of particular scientific interest. The Covex Newsletter (ref. 8) reports that the results show how “Electrical brain stimulation boosts memory.”
This study on 16 healthy volunteers used “targeted non invasive electromagnetic stimulation” on a particular nerve hub called the hippocampus. This area of the brain has a central role in basic memory processes that tie unrelated facts together – like remembering someone’s name or the contents of last night’s dinner.
Scientists used a device which emitted a strong electromagnetic field in rapid pulses. This generated an electrical current in nerve fibres – mimicking the usual electrical activity in the brain.
The results were significant: All the volunteers scored significantly better on memory tests after this procedure – even 24 hours after sessions were completed. In fact the volunteers made 30% fewer mistakes, compared with scores before they had the procedure. Prof Joel Voss, who led the study said: “We show for the first time that you can specifically change memory functions of the brain in healthy adults without surgery or drugs, both of which have not proven effective. This non-invasive stimulation improves the ability to learn new things. It has tremendous potential for treating memory disorders.”
Another revealing recent study (ref. 9) shows how the brain can be ‘trained’ without electricity to prefer healthy food! The only electricity used came from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans on the participants at the beginning and end of the study.
Can the Brain be ‘Trained’ to Prefer Healthy Food?
The study’s author Dr Susan B. Roberts claims that “Many people have a preference for junk food. But the fact is we don’t start out in life loving French fries. This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly – what is out there in the toxic food environment.” So she and her colleagues designed a study to investigate if this unhealthy preference could be changed.
The study was conducted on thirteen overweight and obese men and women. Eight of them were participants in a new weight loss program designed by Tufts University researchers, and five were in a control group and were not enrolled in the weight loss program. Scientists scanned the participants’ reward and addiction centre part of the brain at the beginning and end of the study.
The study focused on changing food preferences by getting the eight participants to eat a low glycemic load diet, high in fiber and protein, but low in refined carbohydrates. When their brains were scanned at the end of the six month study, those that participated in the new diet showed changes in the brains reward center. For example, when shown different types of food, healthy food triggered action within the brain’s reward center indicative of a desire for healthy, lower calorie food. Simultaneously there was a decreased sensitivity to, and desire for junk, higher calorie food.
The scientists were particularly pleased because they suspected that “Once unhealthy food addiction circuits are established, they may be hard or impossible to reverse, subjecting people who have gained weight to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings, temptation, and thoughts of having gastric bypass surgery.”
“Although other studies have shown that surgical procedures like gastric bypass surgery can decrease how much people enjoy food generally, this is not very satisfactory because it doesn’t make healthier foods more appealing. We show here that it is possible to shift preferences from unhealthy food to healthy food without surgery, and that MRI is an important technique for exploring the brain’s role in food cues.”
In essence this study shows what we know already - A sustained nutrient dense diet may help to prevent junk food temptation, and to aid sustainable weight control and overall health.
So do we really need electrical stimulation to help improve the quality of our health and lives?
I think in certain circumstances where conventional medicine has failed to provide sustainable improvement for specific conditions, the various electrical stimulation techniques may help.
But I also believe that we are ultimately responsible for our current state of health. If you continually give your body what it needs to thrive, it will naturally bloom. If you don’t, well, you are likely to wilt!
What do you think? Have you used electrical stimulation techniques to help you in some way? If so, have they worked for you?
1. This article in The Guardian describes the benefits of the short, sharp shock treatment, and raises the ‘bad press’ issue. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jun/03/electrical-brain-stimulation-treatments
2. The National Alliance on Mental illness (NAMI) describes Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) at http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Treatments_and_Supports&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=142939
3. Catatonia is defined by Wikipedia as “a state of neurogenic motor immobility and behavioral abnormality manifested by stupor.”
4. Dennis Stillings describes the historical use of electricity to treat pain
5. Examples of how the various forms of electrical stimulation have been used beneficially over time can be seen in:
- George MS, Belmaker RH (2006). TMS in Clinical Psychiatry. American Psychiatric Press: Washington, DC.
- Higgins ES, George MS (2008). Brain Stimulation Therapies for Clinicians. American Psychiatric Press:, Washington, DC.
6. The potential health benefits of Electromagnetic Therapy are described at http://www.ramsni.com/information_links/Electromagnetic%20Stimulation%20Therapy%20Info/Electromagnetic%20Stimulation%20Therapy%20Info.html
7. The memory study is originally published in ‘Science’
8. The Covex Newsletter report on “Electrical brain stimulation boosts memory” can be found at http://www.covex.com/newsletter/2014/09_sep/About.htm
9. Details about the Tufts University study can be found at: