Reimagining electricity as a depression treatment

Scientists have known since the 18th century that living beings can generate electricity. By the 19th century, doctors were putting that knowledge to use in medicine.

In 1838, Irish physician Robert Bentley Todd observed an experiment by British scientist Michael Faraday that measured the jolt of an electric eel. Todd went on to apply Faraday’s concept of the “electrical force” to his study of the human nervous system.

Todd refuted theories that epilepsy was caused by vascular issues or inflammation. Instead, he posited that it was caused by rapid electrical discharges “exciting the other parts of the brain and spinal cord with all the violence of the discharge from a highly charged Leyden jar,” an early type of capacitor. Todd tested his idea by administering electric shocks to rabbits and inducing seizures.

But it wasn’t until German psychiatrist Hans Berger developed the electroencephalogram in the 1920s that scientists could observe the brain’s electrical activity in action, using small sensors on the scalp to pick up brain waves. At the same time, scientists were exploring the idea of administering electric current to the brain as a treatment. By the 1930s, doctors were using electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, to treat mental illnesses. ECT is effective, but comes with side effects including memory loss. And it doesn’t work for everyone.

Researchers have been working for decades to develop more precise ways to reboot the brain, including implanting electrodes that direct current to specific brain regions. Deep brain stimulation is used to treat Parkinson’s and other movement disorders. But as neuroscience and senior writer Laura Sanders reports, scientists are still testing whether deep brain stimulation can also help people with severe depression that hasn’t been relieved by medication, ECT or other treatments. She tells the stories of Jon Nelson, a Pennsylvania resident and father of three, and other people who have decided that undergoing brain surgery and living with hardware that constantly stimulates the brain is worth the risk . Without it, they say, life was unbearable.

Sanders spent months interviewing scientists and people participating in the experimental treatment. They were generous with their time and candid about their most painful moments. I am so grateful for their willingness to talk with Science News and share their experiences with our readers.

In this issue, we also explore a realm far removed from neurotechnology — how culture affects treatment for mental illness. Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association issued an apology to Indigenous peoples in the United States for having supported abusive assimilation efforts and culturally inappropriate mental health treatments, social sciences writer Sujata Gupta reports. That support has exacerbated mental illness, chronic disease, incarceration and suicide in Indigenous communities.

“Psychologists need to learn about research methodologies developed by and for Indigenous populations,” the APA’s report said. Researchers are now collaborating with Indigenous communities to develop treatments and test how to measure progress based on cultural norms. Mental health isn’t just a matter of brain waves; it’s also a social construct.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.