Experimental treatments


Because it was thought that mental disorders were rooted in the body, psychiatrists started experimenting with several treatments, focusing on the central nervous system. They directly interacted with the body with lobotomy and electroshock therapy for example.

Psychiatry was an exploratory science, and some of its practitioners conducted experiments.

Convinced that psychiatric disorders were rooted in the body, psychiatrist had limited means to treat their patients in the first half of the 20th Century. Psychiatry was an exploratory science, and some of its practitioners conducted experiments. They mainly focused on the central nervous system, and by directly acting on the body itself, they hoped to cure the madness lay within.

lobotomie illustration lobotomie illustration

Psychiatrists were often resourceful. Accidental observations led them to develop all sorts of therapies. When they saw that restless mentally ill patients became easier to manage after a period of high fever, the patients were injected with the blood of malaria sufferers, to generate attacks of fever artificially. During the interbellum the Austrian physician Dr Sakel determined that schizophrenic patients were better off after a coma. He administered insulin until their sugar levels were so low that they fell into a coma, trying to artificially attain that same positive effect. This was not without risk: some patients died before the end of treatment.

Lobotomy, which involved cutting through the connections between the frontal lobes of the brain and the brain stem, also produced victims. In the 1940s and ’50s, this treatment was often applied in order to break ‘the cycle of unhealthy thoughts’ in the mentally ill, both literally and figuratively. The inventor Egaz Moniz (1874-1955) was awarded for it with the Nobel Prize in Medicine. However, the results were too unpredictable and the side effects too numerous to continue using this treatment method. Some therapies did become generally adopted though. As early as the 19th century, scientists had attempted to manipulate the nerves with electricity. When it was shown, in the 1930s, that depression and the symptoms of schizophrenia became milder after a series of electrical shocks were administered, electroconvulsive therapy became more and more frequent. Belief in the new panacea was so strong that the therapy was used on a mass scale, sometimes even arbitrarily. In some institutions doctors literally went from bed to bed with the ECT machine. Electroconvulsive therapy is still used today for severe forms of depression, but only under anaesthesia.