10 Mind-Boggling Psychiatric Treatments

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by Dan Greenberg

Nobody ever claimed a visit to the doctor was a pleasant way to pass the time. But if you're timid about diving onto a psychiatrist's couch or paranoid about popping pills, remember: It could be worse. Like getting-a-hole-drilled-into-your-skull worse.

1. INSULIN COMA-THERAPY

The coma-therapy trend began in 1927. Viennese physician Manfred Sakel accidentally gave one of his diabetic patients an insulin overdose, and it sent her into a coma. But what could have been a major medical faux pas turned into a triumph. The woman, a drug addict, woke up and declared her morphine craving gone. Later, Sakel (who really isn't earning our trust here) made the same mistake with another patient—who also woke up claiming to be cured. Before long, Sakel was intentionally testing the therapy with other patients and reporting a 90 percent recovery rate, particularly among schizophrenics. Strangely, however, Sakel's treatment successes remain a mystery.

Presumably, a big dose of insulin causes blood sugar levels to plummet, which starves the brain of food and sends the patient into a coma. But why this unconscious state would help psychiatric patients is anyone's guess. Regardless, the popularity of insulin therapy faded, mainly because it was dangerous. Slipping into a coma is no walk in the park, and between one and two percent of treated patients died as a result.

2. TREPANATION

Ancient life was not without its hazards. Between wars, drunken duels, and the occasional run-in with an inadequately domesticated pig, it's no surprise that archaic skulls tend to have big holes in them. But not all holes are created with equal abandon. Through the years, archaeologists have uncovered skulls marked by a carefully cut circular gap, which shows signs of being made long before the owner of the head passed away. These fractures were no accident; they were the result of one of the earliest forms of psychiatric treatment called trepanation. The basic theory behind this "therapy" holds that insanity is caused by demons lurking inside the skull. As such, boring a hole into the patient's head creates a door through which the demons can escape, and—voila!—out goes the crazy.

Despite the peculiarity of the theory and lack of major-league anesthetics, trepanation was by no means a limited phenomenon. From the Neolithic era to the early 20th century, cultures all over the world used it as a way to cure patients of their ills. Doctors eventually phased out the practice as less invasive procedures were developed. Average Joes, on the other hand, didn't all follow suit. Trepanation patrons still exist. In fact, they even have their very own organizations, like the International Trepanation Advocacy Group.

3. ROTATIONAL THERAPY

Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a physician, philosopher, and scientist, but he wasn't particularly adept at any of the three. Consequently, his ideas weren't always taken seriously. Of course, this could be because he liked to record them in bad poetic verse (sample: "By immutable immortal laws / Impress'd in Nature by the great first cause, / Say, Muse! How rose from elemental strife / Organic forms, and kindled into life"). It could also be because his theories were a bit far-fetched, such as his spinning-couch treatment. Darwin's logic was that sleep could cure disease and that spinning around really fast was a great way to induce the slumber.

Nobody paid much attention to Darwin's idea at first, but later, American physician Benjamin Rush adapted the treatment for psychiatric purposes. He believed that spinning would reduce brain congestion and, in turn, cure mental illness. He was wrong. Instead, Rush just ended up with dizzy patients. These days, rotating chairs are limited to the study of vertigo and space sickness.

4. HYDROTHERAPY

If the word "hydrotherapy" conjures up images of Hollywood stars lazily soaking in rich, scented baths, then you probably weren't an early 20th-century psychiatric patient. Building off the idea that a dip in the water is often calming, psychiatrists of yore attempted to remedy various symptoms with corresponding liquid treatments. For instance, hyperactive patients got warm, tiring baths, while lethargic patients received stimulating sprays.

Some doctors, however, got a bit too zealous about the idea, prescribing therapies that sounded more like punishment than panacea. One treatment involved mummifying the patient in towels soaked in ice-cold water. Another required the patient to remain continuously submerged in a bath for hours or even days—which might not sound so bad, except they were strapped in and only allowed out to use the restroom. Finally, some doctors ordered the use of high-pressure jets. Sources indicate that at least one patient was strapped to the wall in the crucifixion position (never a good sign) and blasted with water from a fire hose. Like many extreme treatments, hydrotherapy was eventually replaced with psychiatric drugs, which tended to be more effective.

5. MESMERISM

Much like Yoda, Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) believed that an invisible force pervaded everything in existence, and that disruptions in this force caused pain and suffering. But Mesmer's ideas would have been of little use to Luke Skywalker. His basic theory was that the gravity of the moon affected the body's fluids in much the same way it caused ocean tides, and that some diseases accordingly waxed and waned with the phases of the moon. The dilemma, then, was to uncover what could be done about gravity's pernicious effects. Mesmer's solution: use magnets. After all, gravity and magnetism were both about objects being attracted to each other. Thus, placing magnets on certain areas of a patient's body might be able to counteract the disruptive influence of the moon's gravity and restore the normal flow of bodily fluids.

Surprisingly, many patients praised the treatment as a miracle cure, but the medical community dismissed it as superstitious hooey and chalked up his treatment successes to the placebo effect. Mesmer and his theories were ultimately discredited, but he still left his mark. Today, he's considered the father of modern hypnosis because of his inadvertent discovery of the power of suggestion, and his name lives on in the English word mesmerize

6. MALARIA THERAPY

Ah, if only we were talking about a therapy for malaria. Instead, this is malaria as therapy—specifically, as a treatment for syphilis. There was no cure for the STD until the early 1900s, when Viennese neurologist Wagner von Jauregg got the idea to treat syphilis sufferers with malaria-infected blood. Predictably, these patients would develop the disease, which would cause an extremely high fever that would kill the syphilis bacteria. Once that happened, they were given the malaria drug quinine, cured, and sent home happy and healthy. The treatment did have its share of side effects—that nasty sustained high fever, for one—but it worked, and it was a whole lot better than dying. In fact, Von Jauregg won the Nobel Prize for malaria therapy, and the treatment remained in use until the development of penicillin came along and gave doctors a better, safer way to cure the STD.

7. CHEMICALLY INDUCED SEIZURES

Nobody ever said doctors had flawless logic. A good example: seizure therapy. Hungarian pathologist Ladislas von Meduna pioneered the idea. He reasoned that, because schizophrenia was rare in epileptics, and because epileptics seemed blissfully happy after seizures, then giving schizophrenics seizures would make them calmer. In order to do this, von Meduna tested numerous seizure-inducing drugs (including such fun candidates as strychnine, caffeine, and absinthe) before settling on metrazol, a chemical that stimulates the circulatory and respiratory systems. And although he claimed the treatment cured the majority of his patients, opponents argued that the method was dangerous and poorly understood.

To this day, no one is quite clear on why seizures can help ease some schizophrenic symptoms, but many scientists believe the convulsions release chemicals otherwise lacking in patients' brains. Ultimately, the side effects (including fractured bones and memory loss) turned away both doctors and patients.

8. PHRENOLOGY

Around the turn of the 19th century, German physician Franz Gall developed phrenology, a practice based on the idea that people's personalities are depicted in the bumps and depressions of their skulls. Basically, Gall believed that the parts of the brain a person used more often would get bigger, like muscles. Consequently, these pumped-up areas would take up more skull space, leaving visible bumps in those places on your head. Gall then tried to determine which parts of the skull corresponded to which traits. For instance, bumps over the ears meant you were destructive; a ridge at the top of the head indicated benevolence; and thick folds on the back of the neck were sure signs of a sexually oriented personality. In the end, phrenologists did little to make their mark in the medical field, as they couldn't treat personality issues, only diagnose them (and inaccurately, at that). By the early 1900s, the fad had waned, and modern neuroscience had garnered dominion over the brain.

9. HYSTERIA THERAPY

Once upon a time, women suffering from pretty much any type of mental illness were lumped together as victims of hysteria. The Greek physician Hippocrates popularized the term, believing hysteria encompassed conditions ranging from nervousness to fainting fits to spontaneous muteness. The root cause, according to him, was a wandering womb. So, whither does it wander? Curious about Hippocrates's theory, Plato asked himself that very question. He claimed that if the uterus "remains unfruitful long beyond its proper time, it gets discontented and angry and wanders in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and, by obstructing respiration, drives women to extremity." Consequently, cures for hysteria involved finding a way to "calm down" the uterus. And while there was no dearth of methods for doing this (including holding foul-smelling substances under the patient's nose to drive the uterus away from the chest), Plato believed the only surefire way to solve the problem was to get married and have babies. After all, the uterus always ended up in the right place when it came time to bear a child. Although "womb-calming" as a psychiatric treatment died out long ago, hysteria as a diagnosis hung around until the 20th century, when doctors began identifying conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias.

10. LOBOTOMY

Dr. Walter Freeman, left, and Dr. James W. Watts study an X ray before a psychosurgical operation
Harris A Ewing, Saturday Evening Post, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Everybody's favorite psychiatric treatment, the modern lobotomy was the brainchild of António Egas Moniz, a Portuguese doctor. Moniz believed that mental illnesses were generally caused by problems in the neurons of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain just behind the forehead. So when he heard about a monkey whose violent, feces-throwing urges had been curbed by cuts to the frontal lobe, Moniz was moved to try out the same thing with some of his patients. (The lobe-cutting, not the feces-throwing.) He believed the technique could cure insanity while leaving the rest of the patient's mental function relatively normal, and his (admittedly fuzzy) research seemed to support that. The accolades flooded in, and (in one of the lower points in the Karolinska Institute's history) Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949.

After the lobotomy rage hit American shores, Dr. Walter Freeman took to traveling the country in his "lobotomobile" (no, really), performing the technique on everyone from catatonic schizophrenics to disaffected housewives. His road-ready procedure involved inserting a small ice pick into the brain through the eye socket and wiggling it around a bit. While some doctors thought he'd found a way to save hopeless cases from the horrors of life-long institutionalization, others noted that Freeman didn't bother with sterile techniques, had no surgical training whatsoever, and tended to be a bit imprecise when describing his patients' recovery.

As the number of lobotomies increased, a major problem became apparent: The patients weren't just calm—they were virtual zombies who scarcely responded to the world around them. Between that and the bad press lobotomies received in films and novels such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the treatment soon fell out of favor.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

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