Sciences de la nature



The Brain...

Electrically Stimulated!

What an amazing mechanism the brain is! Unfortunately, it is not perfectly known since it is extremely complicated. Nonetheless, many scientists have discovered an impressive amount of technologies and techniques that help people cure many illnesses and get rid of seizures. The Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB) is one of those great inventions were enormously perfected by a pioneering neurosurgeon who changed the way we see the brain: Wilder Penfield. However, is it still used today for the same reasons as when it was first invented, and is it totally safe?

Wilder Penfield was the first one to use Electrical Stimulation of the Brain in surgery. Born in 1891 in Washington, he was later recruited from New York to work at McGill University as a Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery in 1928. At that time, he had a clear vision: to create an institute where scientists and clinicians would work altogether so they could be more effective. Of course, as a determined person, that is what he did a couple of years later to finally open the Montreal Neurological Institute in 1934. As another accomplishment, Dr. Penfield succeeded in mapping the cortex — which is the surface of the brain — and the cortical vortex related to speech for the very first time.

How it all started

To begin with, the ESB was first truly practiced through the Montreal Procedure, invented by Wilder Penfield, to treat people with epileptic seizures. As this marvellous neurosurgeon said, ‘‘the problem with neurology is to understand man himself.” Indeed, his technique consisted in sending small electric shocks to different areas of the patient’s brain while keeping him completely conscious by administering him a local anaesthetic. Then, as a second step to this surgery, a piece of the patient’s skull was removed so the surgeon could put a few electrodes on specific parts of his brain. Throughout the whole operation, they asked him various questions to understand how he reacted to the stimulations so they could then identify the exact parts that could safely be removed in order to, in the best of the cases, entirely alleviate the epileptic seizures. Astonishing but true, as early as the 1950s, more than half the patients were completely cured with this revolutionary technique. Thus, this method was a real breakthrough in medicine and Dr. Penfield succeeded in exploring neurology by trying to understand man himself just like he had always wanted to.

A surprisingly fast evolution

Of course, the electrical stimulation of the brain has been veritably evolving through the last century as a result to its incredible utility. In fact, many clinicians and physicians have been working together at the Montreal Neurological Institute andthat obviously had a great effect on this technology which has been improved and taken to a whole new level. From now on, it is possible to treat tremors and dystonia, but also severe illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, using the Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), which is one of the many therapeutic applications that use electrical shocks to stimulate the brain. As a matter of fact, ‘‘Deep Brain Stimulation is effective in treating tremor in up to 88% of Parkinson disease patients.” Amazing, right? Moreover, it is just one of the many incredible benefits related to the ESB. Besides, this technology is also regularly used as a pain management tool especially for people who suffer from back problems that cannot be eased through medication. Therefore, the possibilities related to this technology are way more abundant than they were in the 1950s and they are still getting more and more numerous.

A great procedure, but not perfect

Even though the electrical stimulation of the brain is not much of a risky method, there are a few criterions that must be followed carefully. To begin with, anyone with a cardiac pacemaker or any other medical implant who wishes to resort to this therapy will probably be refused. In fact, the electrical shocks, although slight and short, could interfere with the other medical equipment and that could cause major problems. Furthermore, the person undergoing an ESB  procedure must be free of any type of infection in addition to discontinuing, in some cases, any medication for a prescribed period of time before the surgery. On top of all these criterions, there are also some rare risks related to this technique, such as haemorrhage, infection, infarction and cerebral oedema (accumulation of fluid in the intracellular or extracellular spaces of the brain). Nevertheless, everyone should consider the fact that these possible complications are extremely rare so there is no reason to be afraid of trying it if needed. Consequently, even though ESB has more benefits than risks, it is not an entirely perfect procedure.

What is to come ahead with this technology is almost infinite

Today, scientists from all around the world are very confident facing the potential of the electrical stimulation of the brain. In fact, they believe that it could easily treat disorders like depression and chronic pain as well as helping people recover faster from strokes. Moreover, some of them seriously think that enhancing learning, memory, and creativity in healthy people is a possibility, which it is totally coherent because it has been partly demonstrated by studies on a few people in the past ten years. Indeed, one of these people said, after his brain had been electrically stimulated a couple of times: ‘‘I think I find words more quickly and my speaking is more fluent, even with words I haven’t had therapy on.” So it is not completely proven that it boosts the brain power, but it will surely be studied in depth eventually considering that ESB is in constant evolution.

To conclude, the electrical stimulation of the brain is an important invention that was used for the first time through surgery by Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon that revolutionized the science of medicine. Of course this technique may have some risks, but it is not much of a big deal compared to all its benefits. So, considering the speed at which the ESB is evolving, a lot of things could be done within the years to come. Who knows, perhaps in a decade or so, intelligence will not only be a matter of genetics anymore.

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