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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and MK-ULTRA

Sound Ethics Subject Guide: MK-ULTRA

Although electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is currently used successfully in a clinical setting, the therapy has a controversial past. In addition to the many negative portrayals of ECT in film and fiction, including Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, public perception may have been influenced by the questionable experimental use of the therapy in medical research during the post-WWII era. These experiments included those which were partly funded by the CIA during the 1950s and the early 1960s as a part of the agency's MK-ULTRA program. The MK-ULTRA program explored methods of mind-control by experimenting with LSD and ECT. Donald Ewen Cameron, as Director of the Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University, oversaw an academic research project partly funded by this CIA initiative. Cameron's research (1957-1964) involved the use of high-powered ECT treatments with mentally ill, anxious, and depressed patients. Cameron experimented with ECT to "depattern" the brain and, thereafter, used other techniques, called "psychic driving", in an attempt to re-pattern the brain.

In this episode of Sound Ethics, Eric Meslin talks with Dr. Steven Jay, a professor of public health at the IU School of Medicine. In 1965, while Dr. Jay was a medical student on a visiting fellowship at McGill, he witnessed the end of this use of ECT. A brief bibliography (below) focusing on the use of ECT in D. Ewen Cameron's research is followed by a broader list of publications addressing the ethical issues of electroconvulsive therapy in medicine and research.

Listen to the archived show: Dark History of Electroshock Therapy (June 1, 2008).

D. Ewen Cameron, ECT and the CIA:

  • Cleghorn RA and Silverman B. D. Ewen Cameron, M.D., F.R.C.P.[C]. CMAJ 1967; 97 (16):984-6. PMID:4861213 [Free Full Text]

  • Farnsworth CH. Canada will pay guinea pigs of 50's. NY Times (Print) 1992:A9. PMID:11647931 | CiteULike [Excerpt]

  • Moreno JD. Undue risk: secret state experiments on humans. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 2000. Find book ...

  • Rubenstein LS. Psychiatric experimentation: the lessons of history. J Calif Alliance Ment Ill 1994; 5 (1):22-4. PMID:11653310

  • Rubenstein LS. Standards of accountability for consent in research. Account Res. 1996;4(3-4):197-206. PMID:11654515 | CiteULike [Excerpt]

  • Schell BH. The ominous shadow of the CIA has imprinted itself on the brain research community. J Calif Alliance Ment Ill 1994; 5 (1):38-40. PMID:11653317

  • Sibbald B. Quebec tackles electroconvulsive therapy issue. CMAJ 2003; 168 (12):1583. PMID:12796349 [Free Full Text]

  • Thomas G. Journey into madness: the true story of secret CIA mind control and medical abuse. New York: Bantam Books, 1989. Find book ...

  • Weinstein HM. Psychiatry and the CIA: victims of mind control. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1990. Find book ...

ECT - Ethical Issues, History, and Attitudes:

  • Fink M. Convulsive therapy: a review of the first 55 years. J Affect Disord 2001; 63 (1-3):1-15. PMID:11246075 [Abstract]

  • Fink M. Is the practice of ECT ethical? World J Biol Psychiatry 2005; 6 Suppl 2:38-43. PMID:16166022 [Abstract]

  • Gazdag G, et al. Regressive and intensive methods of electroconvulsive therapy: a brief historical note. J ECT 2007; 23 (4):229-32. PMID:18090693 [Abstract]

  • Hilton C. An exploration of the patient's experience of electro-convulsive therapy in mid-twentieth century creative literature: a historical study with implications for practice today. J Affect Disord 2007; 97 (1-3):5-12. PMID:16887198 [Abstract]

  • Hirshbein L and Sarvananda S. History, power, and electricity: American popular magazine accounts of electroconvulsive therapy, 1940-2005. J Hist Behav Sci 2008; 44 (1):1-18. PMID:18196545 [Abstract]

  • Lauber C, et al. Can a seizure help? The public's attitude toward electroconvulsive therapy. Psychiatry Res 2005; 134 (2):205-9. PMID:15840423 [Abstract]

  • Lebensohn ZM. The history of electroconvulsive therapy in the United States and its place in American psychiatry: a personal memoir. Compr Psychiatry 1999; 40 (3):173-81. PMID:10360611 [Abstract]

  • Linington A and Harris B. Fifty years of electroconvulsive therapy. BMJ 1988; 297 (6660):1354-5. PMID:3146363 [Free Full Text]

  • Reisner AD. The electroconvulsive therapy controversy: evidence and ethics. Neuropsychol Rev 2003; 13 (4):199-219. PMID:15000226 [Abstract]

  • Rose D, et al. Patients' perspectives on electroconvulsive therapy: systematic review. BMJ 2003; 326 (7403):1363. PMID:12816822 [Free Full Text]

  • Rose DS, et al. Information, consent and perceived coercion: patients' perspectives on electroconvulsive therapy. Br J Psychiatry 2005; 186:54-9. PMID:15630124 [Abstract]

  • Taylor S. Electroconvulsive therapy: a review of history, patient selection, technique, and medication management. South Med J 2007; 100 (5):494-8. PMID:17534086 [Abstract]

  • Thompson JW, et al. Use of ECT in the United States in 1975, 1980, and 1986. Am J Psychiatry 1994; 151 (11):1657-61. PMID:7943457 [Abstract]

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