Friday, October 28, 2011

Electro-Shock Therapy and Placebos

Halloween is near, and the streets will undoubtedly be walked by a Frankenstein or two.  However fictional Mary Shelley's book may be, her idea to have electricity bring dead flesh to life was grounded in [what people thought to be] science.  In the beginning of the 19th century, many scientists thought that animal muscles were powered by electricity, as electrical currents applied to the body of a frog or a decapitated human would cause its muscles to move.  Given this, it didn't take much imagination to imagine a lightning bolt bringing Frankenstein to life.

This generated considerable interest in the interaction between electricity and the human body.  Could electric shocks to a shaven head cure someone of a major depression?  This was attempted on a twenty-seven year old man named Luigi.  The first sessions delivered a mild shock, but the intensity of the shocks increased at each session.  Luigi, it is said, improved with each session and was eventually cured of his depression.  Life was worth living again.  Remember, this was the early 19th century, and this idea of treating mental disorders evolved to modern electro-shock therapy (used by Carrie Fisher, it turns out).

Back then, a patient recovering from depression through electro-shock therapy was considered evidence that the therapy works.  Today, we know there is the placebo problem to deal with.  It is easily possible that the personal attention everyone gave Luigi before and during the electro-shock therapy was what cured him, not the electric shocks.  Acupuncture or an ancient pagan healing ritual might have been equally effective, as long as people were talking to him, showing that they cared for him, and listened to him.

To prove the efficacy of the therapy, we would need to randomly sample willing participants, randomly place them into a treatment and control group.  Researchers would apply electro-shock therapy in the treatment group.  In the control group someone would simply sit down with the subject and talk to them.  Only then would electro-shock therapy pass modern criteria for a proven medical therapy.

Perhaps this has already been done.  I doubt it, though.

"Who was the real Dr. Frankenstein?"  Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast.  October 19, 2011.

"Placebo."  Radiolab podcast.  May 17, 2007.

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