Erotic self-stimulation and brain implants

A 48-year-old woman with a stimulating electrode implanted in her right ventral thalamus started to compulsively self-stimulate when she discovered that it could produce erotic sensations.

This is a report from the early days of deep brain stimulation, way back in 1986, from an article for the medical journal Pain which discussed some unintended side-effects from one patient’s DBS treatment for chronic pain.

Soon after insertion of the nVPL electrode, the patient noted that stimulation also produced erotic sensations. This pleasurable response was heightened by continuous stimulation at 75% maximal amplitude, frequently augmented by short bursts at maximal amplitude. Though sexual arousal was prominent, no orgasm occurred with these brief increases in stimulation intensity. Despite several episodes of paroxysmal atrial tachycardia [heart disturbance] and development of adverse behavioural and neurological symptoms during maximal stimulation, compulsive use of the stimulator developed.

At its most frequent, the patient self-stimulated throughout the day, neglecting personal hygiene and family commitments. A chronic ulceration developed at the tip of the finger used to adjust the amplitude dial and she frequently tampered with the device in an effort to increase the stimulation amplitude. At times, she implored her to limit her access to the stimulator, each time demanding its return after a short hiatus. During the past two years, compulsive use has become associated with frequent attacks of anxiety, depersonalization, periods of psychogenic polydipsia and virtually complete inactivity.

Similar cases are still being reported today. A 2005 case report described a gentleman who had a DBS electrode inserted into the right subthalamic nucleus to treat the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He found that switching the device on and off produced a ‘morphine like’ sensation that he became quite fond of.

This effect was first discovered in humans in the early 1960s, when controversial psychiatrist Robert Heath reported on two cases of people with a number of electrodes implanted in the brain, including some in similar areas to the patients mentioned above.

In 1972, he undertook a notorious study where he implanted electrodes into the brain of a consenting 24-year-old gay male who had been repeatedly hospitalized for chronic suicidal depression and found to have temporal lobe epilepsy.

The brain implant was specifically introduced for non-sexual reasons but Heath decided to test whether pleasurable brain stimulation would encourage the man, known only as B-19, to engage in heterosexual sexual activity with a prostitute.

The study was a ‘success’ but has become infamous as one of the more distasteful episodes in the history of ‘gay conversion therapy’, which is quite hard going in a field that is well-known for its distasteful episodes.

Heath was apparently funded by the CIA as part of their abortive research programme into ‘mind control’ techniques, but I can’t find any reliable reference for that, so it might need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Link to paper ‘Chronic Thalamic Self-Stimulation’.
Link to PubMed entry for paper.
Link to Heath ‘gay brain stimulation’ study.
Link to doi link for same.

2 Comments

  1. Posted September 16, 2008 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Suppressing ethical concerns, that is a fascinating paper, especially around p. 28…

  2. Posted September 17, 2008 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Rewarding brain stimulation could be a good thing. The technique has long been used to motivate rats and other animals to do heavy exercise and learn new skills, and could similarly help people perform difficult behaviors like physical exercise, learning or research: see http://www.iPlant.eu


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