First lobotomy: Nov. 12, 1935
Believing that some forms of mental illness are caused by neural connections in the brain getting stuck, Portuguese neurologist Antonio Moniz tries a new procedure.
He drills two small holes into the skull of a woman patient with symptoms of paranoia, then shoots alcohol directly into her frontal cortex. The procedure appears to be a success—the woman is less agitated. But she also seems more apathetic.
Moniz wasn’t deterred. He refined this new surgery and instead of pumping alcohol into the brain, he tried sucking out brain tissue with a needle or severing neural connections with a wire. All of the procedures were done blind—he didn’t open up a patient’s skull to see where he was cutting.
Moniz called the procedure a “leucotomy” and wrote enthusiastically of the positive results of disconnecting the frontal cortex from the rest of the brain. An American doctor named Walter Freeman embraced the approach with a fervor. Within a year of reading about Moniz’ technique, he had performed 20 of the surgeries, which he renamed “lobotomies.”
But Freeman developed his own technique. He began experimenting with a procedure where he would drive an instrument that looked very much like an ice pick into a patient’s brain near the top of his or her eye sockets. Once the tool was inside the brain, Freeman would wiggle it around, with the purpose of cutting nerve connections. He got so good at it that he started doing lobotomies on an outpatient basis, sometimes taking only 10 minutes to finish. Often, he didn’t use any anesthesia, although he did use shock treatments on his patients so they weren’t aware of what was happening.
Freeman wrote about how effective his lobotomies were in erasing confusion, phobias and delusions in his patients, although he also acknowledged that “every patient probably loses something by this operation, some spontaneity, some sparkle, some flavor of the personality.”
He also was quite the showman, frequently performing the procedure in front of journalists, and doing the surgery as often as 25 times a day. During one two-week period in 1952, Freeman performed 228 lobotomies in West Virginia, a project dubbed “Operation Ice Pick” by the local newspapers. The publicity helped make lobotomies a particularly popular treatment for mental illness in the U.S. The number of people who had the procedure jumped from 100 in 1946 to 5,000 in 1949. Between 40,000 and 50,000 Americans ultimately received lobotomies, most of them between 1949 and 1952.
In fact, lobotomies were held in such high regard that Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949. But there were more and more reports about the side effects of the surgery—that many patients were left in a catatonic state, such as Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of President John F. Kennedy (Freeman had performed her lobotomy in 1941.). Some countries, including Japan, Germany and the Soviet Union, banned lobotomies in the 1950s. And in the U.S., doctors began choosing to instead treat mental health patients with new drugs, such as Thorazine.
But Freeman kept at it. In 1960, he actually lobotomized a 12-year-old boy whose stepmother felt he was too defiant. In 1967, he performed a third lobotomy on a longtime patient of his. It would be his last. After she died of a brain hemorrhage, Freeman was banned from ever operating again.
By the early 1970s, lobotomies had largely disappeared as a treatment.
More slices of history
Mice worse for asthma than cockroaches
Allergic reactions to mice may be an accurate indicator whether a child develops asthma, according to new research.
Scientists from the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI) recruited 49 children under the age of four. They first used skin prick and blood tests to determine the children’s allergic responses to mice droppings as well as to cockroach exposure. Next, they analyzed how many asthma-related emergency visits the children had over the course of 12 months.
The researchers found that the children with mice allergies had more asthma-related emergencies when compared with children who either had no allergies or who were allergic only to cockroaches.
Researchers said that the findings suggest that mice infestation could raise the risk of asthma flares in children.
Brain has special neurons for each taste sensation
The brain has specific neurons that are responsible for each of the five taste sensations, according to new research.
Scientists from Columbia University used mice to determine how the brain works to perceive each of the five taste categories—salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami or savory. The mice were fed chemicals that triggered one of the taste categories while the researchers monitored activity and changes in the brain.
The researchers found that each taste category sensed by the mice’s tongues was connected to a different part of the brain.
The study’s findings, published in the journal Nature, refutes theories on how the brain perceives taste, such as the belief that sweet flavors are sensed only on the tip of the tongue or that brain cells respond to multiple tastes. Researchers also said the findings could be used to help reverse the loss of taste that often comes with aging.
Nasal spray treatment developed for migraines
Researchers from the Roseman University of Health Sciences say they’re developing a nasal spray that could treat migraines. They reported their results this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists in San Diego.
The new prochlorperazine spray is preservative-free, and so it does not have any of the preservative associated side-effects such as mucosal irritation. The formula is also the first to use prochlorperazine as a spray instead of in the more commonly-used pill form for the treatment of migraines.
Prochlorperazine, mostly used as an anti-nausea medication, works against dopamine receptors to provide better pain relief than many other anti-migraine medications. Using the drug as a spray is significant in that it is not only fast-acting, but the formula has already shown it can be used for up to 120 days. The researchers say they next plan to test the spray on rats.
More than one-third of the 100 million people in the U.S. who get headaches suffer from migraines.
Potential "breakthrough" in stem cell treatment for Parkinson's
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden say they’ve found a way to turn embryonic stem cells into dopamine cells that can be transplanted into a brain. And that, they say, may lead to treatments that could slow or stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
In the study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, researchers first killed the dopamine cells in one part of a rat’s brain to produce a Parkinson’s model. Parkinson’s is caused when the cells that produce dopamine, a chemical regulating movement, gradually decline. The researchers then created the dopamine cells from embryonic stem cells and transplanted them into the animal’s brain. They found that the transplanted dopamine cells were successful in both surviving long-term and restoring normal dopamine production in the rat.
The findings were also significant in that the axons of the new dopamine cells showed the same qualities of dopamine cells in humans.
Embryonic stem cells have been the subject of research in the past, but have proved difficult to work with. Once harvested, stem cells have the potential to become a wide range of other cells found in the body - which are not always the ones scientists are trying to target.
The researchers said they hope to begin human clinical trials in three years.