Deep Brain Stimulation

August 14, 2019
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By Jonathan Pugh

In 1963, a neurophysiologist named José Delgado demonstrated the effects of invasive electronic brain stimulation. He implanted electrodes into the brain of a highly aggressive bull, and then joined the animal in a bullring, armed with a hand-held radio transmitter to remotely activate the electrodes. When the bull began to charge, Delgado pushed a button on his transmitter, causing the bull to hold back.

Two years later, the experiment made front-page news in The New York Times, and the footage still makes for compelling viewing today. Delgado’s experiment marked the growing scientific interest in the use of invasive neurostimulation in the mid-20th century. Procedures that provided electrical stimulation to the brain via surgically implanted electrodes began to be used in the treatment of chronic pain, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and psychiatric conditions. Toward those ends, researchers used the technology to stimulate (and thus, identify) malfunctioning areas of the brain. After impaired areas were identified through neurostimulation, invasive neurosurgery would eliminate the targeted regions in a technique known as lesioning.

Researchers of the era also wondered whether neurostimulation alone might be able to modify behaviour and emotional states. But early experiments were ethically dubious at best. Among the most infamous was an attempt to use neurostimulation to ‘cure’ an individual of homosexuality in 1972, a year before homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM). Here, the psychiatrist Robert Heath and his team at Tulane University electronically stimulated the septal region of the brain, associated with the experience of pleasure, then showed the male ‘patient’ films of heterosexual sex. As ‘treatment’ progressed, the patient went on to receive stimulation before having sex with a female prostitute hired by the researchers.

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