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Well, that’s one way to sum it up.
The brain is made up of billions of neurons which, connected through synapses, form a highly complex network that can transmit information through rapid electrical impulses, but, yes, it is, in fact, a saline pool that conducts electricity.
Brain activity produces enough electricity to power a light bulb, and this is a continuous process since the brain doesn’t shut off until we die.
It is susceptible to many diseases and mental disorders, and most standard treatment methods involve oral pills or psychotherapy. Although, think about it. If the brain cells communicate with electricity, shouldn’t it be possible to manipulate the brain with some external electricity ourselves? This is known as electrotherapy of the brain.
Electrotherapy dates way back to the reign of the fourth Roman emperor, Claudius, at around 46 AD. Scribonius Largus, the court physician at the time, published the Compositiones medicamentorum, a list of 271 prescriptions.
It is mentioned that the treatment for a headache, at the time, was a torpedo (the fish, not the missile, that would defeat the purpose). A stingray (or torpedo) would, quite literally, be placed on the forehead, to give relief to headaches, seizures, and depression. The bioelectric discharges were found to be analgesic, making the area numb. This was continued till around the 19th century.
A big milestone was set by Luigi Galvani in the 1700s. Also known as the pioneer of bioelectromagnetics, he, and his wife, experimented with passing electricity through a dead frog.
When the frog’s legs were stimulated by electricity, they twitched upward, so he thought the electricity originated from animals and was what led to the movement in the leg muscles.
He concluded that if this worked for animals, he could bring dead people back to life by passing electricity through their brains! Bit of a stretch, but plausible.
Alessandro Volta, another scientist at the time, said that the electrodes placed on the frog’s legs were the source of electricity, which was why the legs twitched upwards. In his quest to prove Galvani wrong, the very first electric battery was born, based on the principle that electrochemical reactions produced dry current. He coined the latter ‘Galvanism’.
Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, followed his uncle’s footsteps, trying to bring more complex dead animals, like bulls and oxen, to life. As he electrified the corpses, he was able to get their heads to shake, eyeballs to roll, and their tongues to fall out of their mouths. These are dead animals we’re talking about here.
He then shifted his experiments to the next obvious option — human corpses.
Aldini managed to retrieve the freshly hung corpse of the criminal, George Foster, and experimented with passing electricity through his body by fastening probes to his cranium.
The incident was recorded in The Newgate Calendar:
Some even reported that the corpse inhaled.
This sounds like…a poor man’s Frankenstein.
Coincidence? I think not.
Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, was probably five at the time of the George Foster experiment, but the incident served as inspiration for one of the greatest horror stories in English Literature.
Enough with the history aspect. While frying the brain with electricity sadly can’t bring a person back to life, it can certainly help it rewire pathways and treat some mental disorders.
Let’s go over the more recent forms of electrotherapy for the brain.
Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological diseases in the world, affecting almost 50 million people a year. Characterized by seizures, it is most commonly treated with medication, but severe cases can be treated by the Montreal Procedure.
Most people who suffer from this disease experience a warning or an aura just before experiencing a seizure. This can be in the form of certain sounds, smells, or a sense of déjà vu, among other emotional signs.
Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield and his team, in the mid-1900s, came up with a procedure, where the patient who suffers from epilepsy is given local anesthesia to the brain. While the patient is still conscious, the doctor stimulates different parts of the brain, and the patients would say how they felt each time.
If stimulating a particular part caused the same sensations as an aura before a seizure, doctors would be aware of the part of the brain causing the seizures, and the area would then be surgically removed or treated.
Electroconvulsive Therapy, or ECT, is a technique used to treat severe cases of depression, schizophrenia, mania, and catatonia. When conventional treatments like medication and psychotherapy don’t work, the patient is given general anesthesia and currents up to 800 mA are passed through electrodes placed on the sides of the patient’s head. This triggers a very mild seizure for about a minute, the patient’s brain is sort of reset, and the symptoms of the disorder are reversed.
While it might seem brutal, it is, in reality, painless, and does not cause any damage to the brain structure.
Having a success rate of 80–85%, it’s weird that no one knows what exactly happens intrinsically in the brain during ECT. It’s been speculated that feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine have enhanced production after ECT. It may also be due to better communication between nerve cells. Who knows?
Ethical aspects are to be taken into consideration as well — come on — they’re electrocuting their brain. The patient’s history has to be checked thoroughly, and their consent must be taken. Some of these procedures have side effects like confusion and mild amnesia, so the patient, and their family, must be well informed of those. Health professionals must see how suitable the treatment is to the patent, whether electrotherapy is the best way to go.
Additional forms of brain electrotherapy involve Deep Brain Stimulation, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Leaps and bounds are being made in the field of electrotherapy, with wearables becoming a hot field of research. Technology has allowed for small batteries that can be embedded in the lungs, that way there isn’t any need for a large external power source. Improvements are being made to reduce side effects as well.
Electrical stimulation of the brain is a way of treating a brain for disorders without opening the skull, which is a riskier procedure. The field is teeming with possibilities that have just started to unravel. This is just the tip of the iceberg!
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