Biological Therapy

Start Your Free Trial To Continue Watching
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.
Start your free trial to take this quiz
As a premium member, you can take this quiz and also access over 8,500 fun and engaging lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Get access today with a FREE trial!
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute to get started. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.
  1. 0:15 Biological Methods
  2. 1:00 Medical Treatments
  3. 1:20 Electroconvulsive Therapy
  4. 2:58 Insulin Shock Therapy
  5. 3:50 Psychosurgery
Show Timeline
Taught by

Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Do you think psychological problems can be fixed with electric shocks or brain surgery? Find out more about biological treatments for mental problems and the controversial role they played in treating patients.

Before psychiatric drugs were developed, psychiatrists sometimes used other biological methods to try to cure or improve their patients' mental health. Therapists understood that changing the body could change the mind, but they didn't have reliable ways of determining targeted biological treatments. Most of these treatments are either no longer used today, or are used as last-resort options for severe conditions. These psychiatric methods used in the past seem crude compared to today's treatments. But it's worth having at least a basic knowledge of the origin of biological treatments to gain perspective on current treatments and to think about the ethical issues that surround many of these methods. After years working only with talk-therapy approaches based on the teachings of Freud, psychiatrists were eager to have options for treating patients that were distinctly medical. These biological treatments seemed, at least at first, much more cut-and-dry than talking about feelings. However, many medically based treatments were largely ineffective and often cruel--but were pursued, often, because doctors felt like they were really doing something for their patients, rather than just talking to them or putting them in mental institutions to live out their days.

Electroconvulsive therapy, abbreviated ECT, became popular in the 1940's as a treatment for nonresponsive patients of many psychological disorders, including depression and schizophrenia. Technicians used electric shocks to give patients seizures that were intended to help them recover. Seizure treatments had been used before, but had required giving patients certain drugs that were expensive and sometimes caused unpredictable reactions. ECT gained notoriety in the 1970's due to high-profile negative portrayals in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The poet Sylvia Plath described ECT:

'By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. / I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.'

You might be surprised, after hearing such a scary, painful-sounding description, to know that ECT is still used today in cases of severe depression. Though there are many people who feel ECT affected them negatively, others report that the treatment really did help them where modern antidepressants failed. A common side effect is memory loss; because of this, patients are rarely forced to undergo the treatment and are encouraged to weigh their decision carefully. For some, some memory loss is worth no longer feeling depressed. For others, this tradeoff is unacceptable. Author Ernest Hemingway complained of the treatment:

'Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient?'

For someone who wrote fiction for a living, the loss of memory was worse than the depression.

Another kind of shock therapy, called insulin shock therapy, was used to treat schizophrenia in the 1930's-50's. Patients would receive doses of insulin, a hormone which you may associate with diabetics. The dose would be high enough to put them into a coma. Doctors would carefully monitor the patients' comas, then eventually revive them. Though some studies showed that it helped, usually the patients selected for the treatment were those with the best chances of getting better anyway. Later doctors found that the insulin itself didn't seem to do anything; patients who were put into comas by other means had similar results. Insulin treatment had lots of nasty side effects, including massive weight gain, restlessness, and discomfort between treatments. It fell out of mainstream use by the 1960's, and is no longer practiced today.

Unlock Content Over 8,500 lessons in all major subjects

Get FREE access for 5 days,
just create an account.

Start a FREE trial

No obligation, cancel anytime.

Want to learn more?

Select a subject to preview related courses:

People are saying…

"This just saved me about $2,000 and 1 year of my life." — Student

"I learned in 20 minutes what it took 3 months to learn in class." — Student

See more testimonials

Did you like this?
Yes No

Thanks for your feedback!

What didn't you like?

What didn't you like?

Next Video
Create your Account

Sign up now for your account. Get unlimited access to 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more.

Meet Our Instructors

Meet all 53 of our instructors