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.

Tonight, the Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks on Earth Day

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iStock/dmoralesf

Tonight, look up and you might see shooting stars streaking across the sky. On the night of Monday, April 22—Earth Day—and the morning of Tuesday, April 23, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll probably see meteors zooming across the heavens every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know about this meteor shower.

What is the Lyrid meteor shower?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

How to See the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Monday night marks a waning gibbous Moon (just after the full Moon), which will reflect a significant amount of light. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Monday night—when you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour—your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrid meteor shower. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

Other Visible Bodies During the Lyrid meteor shower

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

What to Do if There's Bad Weather During the Lyrid Meteor Shower

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of April 23. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on April 24 and 25, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrid meteor shower will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 5, the Eta Aquarids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

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iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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