Gimme Shock Treatment

I was feeling sick, losing my mind
Heard about these treatments by a good friend of mine
He was always happy, smile on his face
He said he had a great time at the place
Peace and love is here to stay and now I can wake up and face the day
Happy happy happy all the time shock treatment, I’m doing fine
Gimme gimme shock treatment
Gimme gimme shock treatment
Gimme gimme shock treatment
I wanna, wanna shock treatment (The Ramones, 1976)

Ah Memory! Of all of our cognitive abilities, memory is perhaps the most elusive. What is it? Where is it? Memory is what defines the narrative of our lives. In Kierkegaard’s words, “Life can only be understood backwards and lived forwards.” And, as we would surely all admit, memory is something we never have enough of. As we get older, things get harder and harder to remember. Sometimes this can even end in the tragedy of dementia. If only there was an easy way of improving our memory; something like a memory pill would be just the thing. With this in mind, it has been of considerable interest to read recent news articles concerning the launch in 2021 of a new device that can apparently give your memory a reliable boost. A California-based company named HUMM has developed a “bioelectric memory patch” advertised as a device that can boost your short-term memory by electrically stimulating your brain non-invasively; that is, it doesn’t require electrodes or anything invasive to be inserted through your skull and into your brain. The patch works through stimulators placed on your skin. The memory patch looks like a large Band-Aid which you stick on your forehead and then move a tiny switch to activate it.

The HUMM electropatch

Indeed, considering the current rise of face mask fashion, the memory patch actually represents quite a chic addition to one’s attire. When activated, the patch generates an alternating electric current, a technique which is known as transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS), a method of noninvasively stimulating the brain with oscillating waves of electricity. The company claims that 15 minutes of continuous stimulation will give you “90 minutes of boosted learning” in the period directly following stimulation. In fact, non-invasive electrical stimulation of the brain has been claimed to have any number of potential applications. Aside from improving memory, tACS and related forms of electrical stimulation, such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), have been reported to be beneficial for treating migraine headaches, pain, depression and a long list of other health issues. This does seem like good news if the results live up to the maker’s claims. However, before we all succumb to the illusion that science has come up with another new health cure, it is as well to point out that this particular gadget has a history going back at least three thousand years.

The phenomenon of electricity was widely appreciated in antiquity by the Greeks in particular. It was well known that rubbing a material like amber with a cloth then allowed it attract small objects like feathers or twigs, something that we now know was due to static electricity. Indeed, the word electricity, a neologism coined by the great Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century, has its origins in the Greek word for amber which is “electron”. Magnetism was another force that was known to the Greeks, primarily based on their observations that a lodestone (a naturally magnetized piece of iron ore) could attract iron filings. These different kinds of “attractions” were manifest in various areas of Greek life. One of the most interesting was their knowledge of the properties of electric fish. This particularly concerned Mediterranean electric rays of the genus Torpedo spp., such as the common Torpedo torpedo.

Roman mosaic including a torpedo fish (top center)
Common torpedo fish

Electric rays have a special organ called an electroplaque which can generate and store electricity like a battery and discharge it to produce a considerable electric shock. There are other types of electric fish as well. The electric catfish of the Nile was known to the ancient Egyptians, and the South American electric eel, which can deliver an enormous jolt, was “discovered” by the first Europeans who ventured into Guyana and was described in detail in the writings of Alexander von Humboldt. The utility of this shock for the fish is presumably to stun prey or to discourage predators. A shock from an electric ray produces numbness or torpor in a human limb and “torpedo” is the Latin for numbness or stiffness, a well-known consequence of being shocked by these fish. In the 4th century BCE, Plato in one of his famous dialogues, Meno, used the torpedo to make fun of his teacher Socrates because of the benumbing effects of his conversation: “And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both to your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish who torpifies those who come near him and touch him as you have now torpified me. I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you.” According to Plato’s student Aristotle writing about the torpedo, “It necrotizes the creatures that it wants to catch, overpowering them by shock that is resident in its body and feeds upon them.” Aristotle’s student Theophrastus observed that a shock from a torpedo could be conducted to a limb through a metal spear without touching it directly and, in the second century CE, Plutarch observed that the torpedo’s effect could be transmitted through water or any conducting medium.

The Greeks and Romans were also interested in the potential role of electrical fish in medicine. In the 1st century CE, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus wrote about the use of the torpedo’s electric discharge for alleviating pain associated with headaches and gout. In the case of headaches, the recommendation was to place a torpedo fish on one’s head—apparently a wonderfully effective cure. It is said that Anteros, a court official of Emperor Tiberius, was cured from gout when he accidently stepped on a live black torpedo (Torpedo nobiliana) and received a shock of more than 100 volts. Galen, the greatest of all doctors in antiquity, was aware of the torpedo’s effect and even provided a theory to explain it. According to Galen, the fish could release toxic particles of extreme cold that could flow into a limb that it touched, thereby producing a numbing effect.

Over the centuries, the properties of the torpedo and its electrical discharge were the subject of considerable speculation. However, the entire phenomenon was eventually put into perspective as a result of the famous debate between the two Italian scientists, Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta in the late 18th century concerning the existence of “animal electricity,” certainly one of the most famous encounters in the history of science. Torpedoes aside, Galvani had concluded that every animal could produce its own electricity and that this force played an essential role in the control of nerve-induced muscle contraction. In other words, it was an essential aspect of how the body worked. His adversary Volta, on the other hand, rejected Galvani’s results, mostly obtained from experiments performed on frogs. Rather, Volta concluded that the electricity observed in Galvani’s experiments was actually generated by the metals that were part of Galvani’s experimental set up. And of course it is true, as Volta concluded, that metals can generate electricity. Volta took note of the structure of the electric organ of the torpedo which contained hundreds of tiny cells all stacked together. In order to mimic this arrangement, Volta designed an apparatus that consisted of numerous metallic disks separated by papers soaked in saline and demonstrated that this “electric pile” could generate a constant electric current. He had invented the battery. As would become clear both Galvani and Volta were correct in their own way. Animals do use electricity as one of the basic mechanisms for controlling the functions of living tissues and the battery based on metal electricity was one of the major discoveries in the history of science.

After Galvani’s death, his research was taken up by his nephew Giovanni Aldini, who made it his life’s work to spread the doctrine of animal electricity. This he achieved not only through his own research which took place, like his uncle’s, in Bologna, but also by taking his demonstrations on the road throughout Europe so that the public could appreciate his results. Remember that in those days, public scientific demonstrations were an essential part of public education and entertainment. Beginning in Bologna, Aldini moved on from frogs and began to examine the effects of electrical current stimulation on a wide variety of creatures including birds, lambs, calves and oxen. For example, when Aldini applied direct electric current to different parts of an ox brain, which was still in place in the decapitated head of the animal, he observed effects such as the opening of the animals mouth, its tongue lolling out and its eyes opening and eyeballs rolling around. Most sensational however, were Aldini’s demonstrations using humans. He applied electricity to the bodies of three criminals who had been beheaded. Aldini was able to produce all kinds of muscle contractions in the arms and legs of the cadavers and when the heads were stimulated he could produce grimaces and other facial tics, all of which were extremely startling. Aldini also imagined that electrical stimulation of the brain might have some beneficial effects on patients. He treated a patient named Luigi Lanzarini, a 27-year-old farmer suffering from melancholia (probably unipolar depression). Prior to treating him, Aldini felt obliged to test the effects of electrical stimulation on himself and described them as follows: “First, the fluid took over a large part of my brain, which felt a strong shock, a sort of jolt against the inner surface of my skull. The effect increased further as I moved the electric arcs from one ear to the other. I felt a strong head stroke and I became insomniac for several days.” Aldini initiated Lanzarini’s treatment by using moderate electric shocks over a period of time and observed that there was a clear improvement in the patient’s mood over the weeks until he was eventually completely cured.

In 1802, Aldini began a tour of Europe. One place he stopped was in Paris, where he met the great pioneering psychiatrist Philippe Pinel, who was astonished to see the muscular contractions that Aldini was able to elicit from cadavers. They decided to work together to investigate whether electricity could have a beneficial effect on psychiatric patients. Unfortunately, the patients in the Salpetriere hospital took fright at the sight of Aldini’s apparatus and ran away screaming, so that collaboration was not a success. Aldini was to have better luck in London a little later. This was to become the site of his most famous demonstration, which took place on Monday, January 17, 1803 at the Royal College of Surgeons. Aldini used electricity to shock and convulse the corpse of George Foster, a 26-year-old criminal who had just been hanged at the prison of Newgate for the murder of his wife and child whom he had drowned in the Paddington Canal. The results were dramatic. When electrical conducting rods were applied to Foster’s mouth and ear, Aldini wrote that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of reanimation.” Apparently, at one point, the corpse sat up, its mouth opened and it drooled emitting a moaning sound. It is said that many ladies in the audience fainted at the sight.

Aldini’s demonstration was reported in detail in the London newspaper, The Times. The affair created a sensation and clearly made a great impression on the minds of scientists and the public in general. This apparently included the young Mary Shelley, who presumably had these scenes in mind when she wrote her novel, Frankenstein. Indeed, the amazing effects of electricity on animals and humans greatly influenced the 19th century debate on vitalism—a theory stipulating that living creatures possessed a unique life force. It was supposed that the ability of electricity to animate objects might constitute one of the key differences between things that were alive and things that were dead.

Aldini’s experiment as reported in a London newspaper

In one famous demonstration, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, himself an important figure in scientific history, applied electricity to vermicelli and claimed that he had animated it. Mary Shelley actually mentions this in her introduction to Frankenstein:

“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and [Percy Bysshe] Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him), who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion. Not thus, after all, would life be given. Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

As the 19th century proceeded, people became more and more familiar with the concept of electricity and other invisible fields of force that permeated the universe. This had its scientific culmination with the publication of James Clerk Maxwell’s “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field” in 1865, in which Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light, bringing the ideas of electricity, magnetism and light together in one theory as representing aspects of the same underlying phenomenon.

The suggested effects of unseen but powerful electric and magnetic fields became the stimulus for all kinds of pseudoscientific ideas such as Mesmerism, which was extraordinarily popular for a time. These ideas also fired the imaginations of many writers in addition to Mary Shelley. At the forefront of this trend were the fantastically popular works of Sir Edward Bullwer-Lytton, who widely popularized all kinds of interesting scientific and occult ideas in his novels. Foremost among these was “The Coming Race” which described a chthonic matriarchal society whose lives and machines were powered by a force called vril—clearly some sort of electricity. The novel was extremely influential. Ideas, as they say, have consequences. One of these was the creation of a supposedly strength-giving drink which combined the effects of vril with that of beef consommé and was name Bovril (it is still widely consumed in the UK). The famous occult medium, Henrietta Petrovna Blavatsky was a huge fan of the book, and its ideas found their way into the concepts of astral forces and astral projections that formed the basis of Theosophy, ideas that influenced so many people including educators like Rudolf Steiner, painters like Kandinsky and Mondrian and even racial theorists like the progenitors of National Socialism.

Bovril—vril in a bottle!

During the 20th century, it began to become clear that activating different parts of the brain with electrodes inserted into different structures could produce a variety of outcomes, including the movement of different muscles, seizure activity and different types of thought patterns, leading to a discussion that if this could be done non-invasively, it might lead to medical advances. However, non-invasive electrical stimulation of the brain didn’t find a firm footing in medicine until the middle of the 20th century, and then through a serendipitous observation. It was reported by the nurses and doctors who oversaw patients in mental institutions that the patients’ condition seemed to improve if they suffered an epileptic seizure. With this in mind, a Portuguese psychiatrist named Ladislas Meduna began experimenting with different ways to deliberately induce seizures in patients and, in 1934, discovered that pentylenetetrazol (Metrazol) could reliably do this. Amazingly, Meduna noted that his patients’ psychotic symptoms did seem to diminish after a Metrazol-induced seizure. This novel treatment quickly became known as convulsive therapy. Other psychiatrists then searched for different ways of inducing seizures in patients, and in 1938, Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini developed the first electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) device capable of producing Grand Mal convulsions and treated their first human patient, a diagnosed schizophrenic with delusions, hallucinations, and confusion. The treatment worked just as planned, and the patient’s condition improved markedly. Beginning in the 1940s, ECT was adopted by almost every major psychiatric institution around the world as a treatment for serious mental disease, and Cerletti and Bini were even nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine in the 1930s. By the 1960s however, the rise of the anti-psychiatry movement and the publication of Ken Kesey’s prizewinning novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,had ushered in a sea change in public and psychiatric opinion. Physical treatments like ECT and lobotomies lost popularity, their use declined, and they were generally replaced by new drugs for treating psychiatric disease.

However, the use of ECT never completely went away and in recent times has once again increased in popularity for treating drug-resistant depression. However, beginning in the 1960s, and slowly continuing to this day, there have been experiments using much smaller currents to stimulate the brain non-invasively and, particularly in the last couple of decades, publications on these techniques in the scientific literature have become more and more frequent. Really there are two types of applications that are envisaged. The first of these are medical applications for treating different types of patients. For example, given the idea that memory can be modified by different types of transient cranial electrical stimulation, one clear potential application might be in treating Alzheimer’s Disease. A recent paper in the journal Nature Neuroscience (Reinhart R and Nguyen J, 2019, vol. 22, p. 820) indicated that such a result may indeed be possible. The authors demonstrated that they could use tACS tuned to boost a specific type of electrical brain rhythm which is known to be active during working memory: it is called theta (4–8 Hz)-gamma (>25 Hz) phase-amplitude coupling .When this was done in older adults, the subjects displayed clear improvements in working memory that outlasted the period of stimulation. This is an exciting result and supports the kind of approach in which tACS can be specifically used to boost brain rhythms that are normally functional in the human brain, perhaps leading to new treatments in many areas—chronic pain, for example.

A second type of use for transcranial electrical stimulation is to improve cognitive function in “normal people,” that is people who are not suffering from a particular medical syndrome. These would be consumers who just want to boost their working memory to help with day-to-day tasks. One would imagine that the success of such an aim would be wildly popular, and this is the group to which the HUMM electropatch is targeted. There is actually a whole subculture which has grown up around the use of brain stimulation. Considering the fact that producing these effects is very low tech and inexpensive, it is possible to buy the relevant equipment for stimulating your own brain on Amazon or many other outlets. Of course, the widespread use of most of these procedures has not been rigorously studied and so questions have been raised as to the potential danger of DIY brain stimulation, a matter which is under review at this time. Furthermore, it is also the case that the mechanisms underlying the reported effects of some of these procedures are completely unclear. It is true, of course, that the brain runs on “animal electricity”—to use Galvani’s phrase— and passing electric currents through it might be expected to change what is going on in some fashion. But in many instances, precisely what is happening remains unclear.

At any rate, it is likely that the electropatch will be only the tip of a coming brain electrical device iceberg, and many other products can be expected in the near future, together with a great deal of research trying to understand the underlying physiology of these effects. Many of these items may be well within the budget of the average consumer. Still, it might be even better to go really low tech by visiting your local fishmonger, buying a small ray fish, and slapping it on your head. Could another fashion trend be in the offing?

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