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ResourcesHuman Research EthicsDark past of deep-brain stimulation – Nature (Christian Lüscher | March 2018)

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Dark past of deep-brain stimulation – Nature (Christian Lüscher | March 2018)

 


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Christian Lüscher considers an alarming career from the early days of psychiatry.

Many people consider deep-brain stimulation (DBS) to have begun in 1987 in Grenoble, France, when Pierre Pollak and Alim Benabid stopped a person’s tremor by delivering high-frequency pulses of electricity to her thalamus. In fact, more than three decades earlier, a psychiatrist called Robert G. Heath at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, had experimented with this approach. Now, science writer Lone Frank pulls Heath (1915–99) from obscurity for her exploration of DBS, The Pleasure Shock.

As AHRECS readers know, we believe there is a trap in using egregious ethical lapses/scandals in human research ethics professional development activities, but this awful story is a less commonly known example and a chance to talk about the ends not justifying the means.

Frank has traced and interviewed surviving patients, former collaborators, family members and current DBS scientists. The result is a rarity: a thrilling, well-researched read. Above all, it is a chilling reminder of how early neurosurgical experimentation knew few ethical boundaries — even firmly within the medical and academic establishment. Heath was chair of Tulane’s psychiatry and neurology department for 31 years, from 1949 to 1980.
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Today, DBS is an approved treatment for Parkinson’s disease, dystonia (uncontrollable muscle contractions) and essential tremor. Other indications, such as therapy for obsessive–compulsive disorder, depression and addiction, are the focus of intensive research. Just a few patients are treated ‘off label’, with mixed results.
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