The Psychosurgery Debate

Research involving electrical stimulation of the brain was closely linked to the broader debate over psychosurgery in the 1960s and 1970s (Fins, 2003). Commentators from that era worried about the use of electrical stimulation of the brain as a means of behavior control to address social problems such as crime and civic unrest. These concerns were prompted, in part, by the work of José M. R. Delgado who advanced the idea of "psychocivilizing society" using a brain implant that could be operated by remote control. Delgado came to international attention in 1965 when he stopped a charging bull in a bullring using a "stimoceiver" he had developed. Speculation was enhanced by popular novels such as Michael Crichton's The Terminal Man whose main character underwent electrical stimulation of the brain to treat violent behavior.

The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, authorized by the National Research Act of 1974, was specifically ordered by the U.S. Congress to issue a report on psychosurgery (National Research Act of1974. U.S. Statutes at Large). The National Commission, which issued its report in 1977, included electrical stimulation of the brain under its definition of psychosurgery, noting that "psychosurgery includes the implantation of electrodes, destruction or direct stimulation of the brain by any means" when its primary purpose was to "control, change, or affect any behavioral or emotional disturbance" (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research). The National Commission's definition of psychosurgery excluded brain surgery for the treatment of somatic disorders such as Parkinson's disease or epilepsy or for pain management.

Of the National Commission, the Behavioral Control Research Group of the Hastings Institute (Blatte), and the American Psychiatric Association's Task Force on Psychosurgery (Donnelly), none found reliable evidence that psychosurgery had been used for social control, for political purposes, or as an instrument for racist repression as had been alleged. Contrary to expectations of the day, the National Commission did not recommend that psychosurgical procedures be banned. Instead, it found sufficient evidence of efficacy of some psychosurgical procedures to endorse continued experimentation as long as strict regulatory guidelines and limitations were in place.

Although allegations of mind control were never substantiated, contemporary media reports about modern deep brain stimulation often allude to these earlier fears This misuse of historical analogy has the potential to distort current policy regarding the regulation of this novel technology (Fins, 2002).

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