Using Electricity, Magnets for Mental Illness

Physicians have known for 2,000 years that electricity could help troubled minds—even before they knew what electricity was. Roman Emperor Claudius pressed electric eels to his temples to quell headaches. Sixteenth-century doctors induced seizures with camphor to treat psychiatric illnesses.

Now, research is advancing rapidly on a host of far more precise techniques to stimulate or calm the brain with electricity, magnets or even ultrasound and infrared waves. Most of the therapies target severe, resistant depression—a problem for nearly seven million Americans. But some are also showing promise for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorders, schizophrenia, addictions and memory problems.

Some battery-operated brain stimulators are even being marketed for home use, so patients can treat their own depression and insomnia, though some neurologists say the evidence for these devices is thin.

“There’s a stampede of these new technologies,” says Mark George, a psychiatrist and neurologist at the Medical University of South Carolina and editor-in-chief of the journal Brain Stimulation. “There are all these different ways to get into the brain and figure out how to change the circuits.”

Indeed, there’s a growing consensus among neuroscientists that many psychiatric illnesses stem from problems in the brain’s electrical circuits.

“In psychiatry, we have gone from ‘It’s all about your mother’ a la Freud to the concept of chemical imbalances in the brain to the current focus on dysfunctional brain circuits and genetics,” says Emory University neurologist Helen Mayberg, a pioneer in brain imaging and depression.

Reported by Melinda Beck
The Wall Sreet Journal

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