The Current

Why the origins of deep brain stimulation fell into obscurity

Scientists can learn from psychiatrist Robert Heath's story, says science journalist

Posted: August 09, 2018

A patient undergoes deep brain stimulation that involves high-frequency electricity to certain areas of the human brain. The patient is awake to communicate with doctors during certain phases of the operation. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

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In the 1950s, American neurologist and psychiatrist Robert Heath — who developed deep brain stimulation — was revered as either a scientific superstar or a highly polarizing figure.

The method, now used to treat Parkinson's disease, involves surgically implanting electrodes deep inside the human brain, which then transmits a weak electrical current. Heath found he could alter the way the brain worked, and alter human behaviour when using this technique.


Heath's work was very controversial as Danish science journalist Lone Frank found out when working on a feature article on deep brain stimulation several years ago.

"Scientists are always at the very front of something ... and then some of them end up as 'monsters,'" Frank told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch about Heath's legacy.

It's a lesson that Frank wants modern-day scientists to learn from in her book,  The Pleasure Shock, about the life and work of Heath — a man that was largely forgotten by contemporary practitioners of the technique, she said.

(Pernille Ringsing)

"Nobody I talked to in the field of deep brain stimulation had heard of him. So I started to look into what on earth this was about," Frank said.

"It turned out to be a really fascinating history of technology that is coming back but that everybody thinks is new."


From lobotomies to 'using the brain's language'

As of 2015, deep brain stimulation had been used to treat more than 150,000 Parkinson's patients to help control their tremors, according to a German university's review of the method. There have also been  clinical trials to see whether it could work to treat depression and Alzheimer's

But its use began decades ago when Heath was doing research on the effects of lobotomies for people with schizophrenia. He found that they didn't really have much impact.

  It's simply a question of realizing that everyone can be looked at as monsters, if you look into the future and the culture has changed, the ethics have changed.  - Lone Frank

Heath wondered whether the key to treating schizophrenia was grounded in an inability to feel pleasure, also known as "anhedonia." So he set out to find the centres of the brain where pleasure was located, and then started experimenting by stimulating them.

"Deep brain stimulation is about using the brain's language, which is really electricity," Frank said.

"And so by applying electrical current, you can change the way the brain works."

According to Frank, Heath's early work was modestly successful. 


Patient B-19

But Heath's work with a gay man, known as patient B-19, attracted the most controversy.

Suffering with depression and suicidal thoughts, the man went to Heath in 1970 in a bid to alter his sexuality.

At the time, homosexuality was considered to be a "mental disease," and the man believed that Heath's treatment could help him live a happier life.

In the early 1970s, there was a growing gay community in New Orleans, where the experiment took place, Frank said.

"They started writing about Nazi science going on at Tulane [University]."

Some critics decried deep brain stimulation as "mind control," and eventually, Heath's work faded into obscurity.


Ethical considerations

Frank acknowledges that deep brain stimulation is not the only medical treatment that alters the brain, but she thinks scientists in this field, in particular, need to grapple with the many ethical questions it raises:

"Is there anything in a human being — in a brain — that you should not change? Who should be able to change your brain? Is that only you who can decide, is it other people, could it be your parents? Could it be a legal system? There are all kinds of questions," she told Lynch.

Frank says scientists could learn a lot from Heath's story.

"It's simply a question of realizing that everyone can be looked at as monsters, if you look into the future and the culture has changed, the ethics have changed."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.