Electricity has been considered a method of healing the mind for more than 2,000 years - long before scientists even knew what electricity was. In ancient times, electric eels were used to suppress headaches. Now recent advances in brain stimulation techniques using a variety of waves, electricity, and magnets have brought progress in treating mental illness and such conditions as addiction, memory disorders, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—all of which can be resistant to more traditional treatments.
There’s growing consensus that mental illness stems from complications in the brain’s electrical circuits so altering electrical circuits while balancing brain chemicals is the best approach to treatment. In the past, Sigmund Freud fostered the belief that most neurological disorders were caused by mothers; later the prevailing wisdom was that an unbalanced brain chemistry was to blame. There is still much about brain circuitry that psychiatrists don’t fully understand, but the latest research has shifted its focus in that direction.
What current treatments exist?
As psychiatrists have learned more about which regions of the brain are affected by mental illness, how they are wired, and which regions are associated with specific disorders, a host of brain stimulation therapies have been developed.
Electroconvulsive therapy (electroshock therapy)
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the oldest of these practices, during which an electric current is triggered to induce a brief brain seizure. Despite having come under much scrutiny by the FDA for potential side effects, and negative portrayals in popular culture, such as the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” current methods are much safer, use anesthesia, and cause fewer side effects.
ECT remains one of the fastest and most effective treatments for major depression. Without it, psychiatrists predict that suicide rates would increase significantly. More than 100,000 ECT procedures are conducted each year in the U.S.
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Magnetic Seizure Therapy (MST)
Because the use of ECT is limited due to memory-related side-effects, as well as the stigma associated with it, patients may prefer this newly developed therapy. MST induces a seizure through the use of magnetic stimulation, rather than a direct electrical current like ECT. The use of magnetic fields allows for a more precise focus of stimulation than the use of electrical currents.
MST has been found to alleviate symptoms of depression without the loss of memory some experience with ECT. MST is still relatively new and scientists need to continue to compare MST to ECT methods across a range of treatment indications to gauge its effectiveness and safety.