How "Shock Therapy" Could Make Us All Smarter

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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.

Jumpstarting the Brain

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.

Promising New Uses for "Shock Therapy"

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) works. 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 CrinionatUCL Institute of Cognitive Neurosciencein 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.

P.S. If you're interested in learning about high tech investment opportunities long before they hit the pages of the main stream press, the Era of Radical Change newsletter is a great place to start.

And you can't beat the price. You can get it free by clicking here.

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About the Author

Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.

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  1. claude Moffat | June 11, 2012

    I have done considerable research into ECT and found that no study produced beneficial results of significance and any claim to a benefit was in the opinion of the psychaitrist not the patient.
    Patients are so terrified of receiving the treatment that they will say anything to avoid it.
    The long term studies show permanent brain damage and negative results for the patient.
    I ask that you do the research that I have done and collect the studies and you will withdraw your fanciful claims of a therapeutic benefit for ECT.
    The low voltage treatments you are promoting are not in the same category as ECT at all.
    ECT is destructive, so much so, that the stupid psychiatrists think that damaging the brain is the way to go when in fact it reduces the person as a valuable citizen and makes him a dependent of the state, costing all of us for the rest of their crippled lives.

  2. James fugedy | June 11, 2012

    Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) is clinically available in Atlanta, Boston and New York for treatment-resistant depression and chronic pain. tDCS is the most cost-effective neuromodulation technique, is easy to do and has no side effects. Although numerous studies demonstrate benefit for cognitive and motor learning, tDCS is only used in research protocols at this time.

  3. Torture Dissident | June 11, 2012

    'How "Shock Therapy" Could Make Us All Smarter: Speak for yourself Michael, but not for All of us. It will be over my dead body that I ever get ECT or allow my loved ones to get it. And now they want to use shock to treat pain?! Whose brilliant idea was this? I'll bet it was dreamed up by someone who a) has no clue what pain is; and b) has never undergone electroshock. Disabled people who suffer from physical pain are already a vulnerable, marginalized, stigmatized and under-prescribed, needlessly suffering group. That some think this population deserves to be further tortured and then brain damaged via ECT in addition to the physical body pain they already endure from whatever illnesses/disabilities they have is incomprehensible and inhumane. It is as incomprehensible and inhumane as electroshocking people for the very normal human distress that comes with living in a distressing society (e.g. depression & anxiety).

    The non-sense, absurdity and heights of brainwashing, lying, magical thinking, side-stepping, double-speaking and smoke screening that the farce of psychiatry (and its bedmate big pharma) puts out has no bounds.

    Why is it that profits can only be made from exploiting, oppressing, damaging and hurting others?

    Being that you're pro-shock, how about you go and get your brain electrocuted a couple dozen times and then report back to us? That would only be fair, and it would give your position some credibility.

    Sincerely,
    N.L. Romanov

  4. Louise Williams | June 11, 2012

    Shock treatment of any kind is brutal, unnatural. As a student I watched it performed. The patient tried to resist it, and was held down. He did not want it. No one can convince me that there is anything helpful about such barbaric "treatment". There are natural substances that improve neurotransmission and function of the brain, and depression can poor concentration can be improved with gentle humanitarian techniques. Any form of ECT should be banned

  5. gloria jean murray | June 13, 2012

    I should be back in couple of days/end of week for money map report special,just need to check some info. on my new fidelity account & 2 transfer funds from chase investment acccount,fidelity wed.,chase thurs.,buy info. fri,read over weekend,make fidelity investments by mon.& rest of week 2 finish, or complete whatever,as in,money maps-reverse oil tax.Also tungsten buy in,like warren buffet.THANKU

  6. Dr. Ingram | June 18, 2012

    The last thing which I read about ECT is that one can produce similar results by suspending a person upside down and dropping them ten feet on their head.

    Many of the financial advisors whom I have read must have undergone this treatment – including the author of this article. :-)

  7. JAMES CROUL | August 8, 2012

    IF SHOCK TREATMENTS ARE WHAT YOU SAY WHY ARE THERE NO POSITIVE COMMENTS?

  8. shock therapy | January 12, 2014

    Severely disturbed patients who would once have been considered hopeless have responded favorably in some cases to artificially induced seizures or convulsions. Such treatment, known as shock therapy, became routine in most mental hospitals after World war II but is considerably less common since the discovery of new techniques of chemotherapy. Although a number of different techniques have been used in shock therapy, one feature they have in common is inducing a state of coma lasting for several minutes to several hours after the shock. It is not entirely clear whether the coma itself is the therapeutic factor or whether the value of shock is due to some other factor–such as physiological changes in the nervous system or the creation of a violent psychological reaction (Noyes, 1948).

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