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 the ECT in film and fiction, including Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, public perception may have been influenced 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 (Sound Medicine), 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.