That Sweet, Sweet Voltage: The Electric Addiction

Futurama has a fantastic episode titled “Hell is Other Robots,” in which the show’s main robot, Bender, turns to the seedier side of robot life and develops a heroin-like addiction to electricity. Bender has to get his fix from an outlet or battery; otherwise he gets shaky, nervous, and irritable. The episode pitches the idea that if robots were like humans, electricity would take the place of hard drugs. But an article in the Daily India suggests that electricity might be the vice of robots and humans alike.

In the Indian district of Uttar Pradesh’ Lalitpur, a village priest needs to have a small electrical stimulus before he can fall asleep each night. The priest gets his electricity from home appliances or live wires plugged into the wall. He sometimes leaves the wires in his mouth, under his arms, or behind his ears for the entire night. The article doesn’t say exactly how strong the stimuli is, or if the priest prefers a short jolt to a long tingle, but doctors in the village believe he’s built up a tolerance to it after using it for four years.

The article seemed like a fluke, until I read that the priest used to be addicted to drugs like opium and marijuana. While some villagers think the priest is divine for his ability to handle the impulses, he believes they’re what have kept him clean. Instead of doping up on traditional drugs, he satisfies his cravings with the electrical stimulus.

It turns out that electrical stimulus has been used as a treatment for alcohol addiction for a few years now. Cranial Electrical Stimulation (CES) units have drastically improved the success rates of some alcoholism treatment centers in the US. The patients attach the ends of the device to their earlobes and receive a small current “similar to the electrical pulses in the body.” Patients who were constantly re-entering rehabilitation have found long-term success with the devices, and one treatment adviser thinks it’s the miracle they’ve been looking for. Somehow, the electrical stimulus has satisfied or taken the place of the chemical stimulus they used to seek in alcohol and other drugs.

I was thinking about electrical stimulus on the brain, when I recalled that not all electrical treatments are similar to the ‘mild pulses of the body’. Electroshock therapy (EST) uses enough electricity to cause nerve damage in a few seconds, and can kill a person in a few minutes. It was discovered in the 1930’s and is used to treat severe cases of manic-depression and schizophrenia. In the film A Beautiful Mind, mathematician John Nash undergoes EST, only to be left slightly handicapped and still suffering from schizophrenia. In fact it has been said that considering its damaging side effects, the treatment may have been used too frequently in its early days, when doctors understood it even less. But use of the treatment continued because in some cases, EST yielded amazingly positive results. Cases of manic depression and schizophrenia practically disappeared in patients who showed no response to drug treatment. Somehow, the electrical stimulus drastically altered a malfunctioning process of the brain.

Today, EST is used less frequently, and only on patients with severe symptoms who don’t respond to drug treatment. And sometimes it shows remarkable, positive results; saving people from otherwise untreatable mental illness. What makes these results all the more incredible is that neurologists still don’t really know what happens to the brain during EST. Questions remain such as why the treatment works for some people and not for others; why it can cure manic-depression and schizophrenia, but not other ailments; and especially why it can have such dramatically different effects than chemical treatment. And in the cases presented here, we have to wonder why it is that electrical stimuli can do the equivalent of chemical stimuli for the Indian priest, and then do what chemicals can’t do for those cured by EST. But it works for some people, and that’s enough reason to move forward with both treatment and investigation. The Indian priest’s self medication is an example of neuroscience having data but no solid theory.

The idea of an “electricity addiction” might sound funny, but when I Googled the phrase, I got a lot more hits than I expected. I soon realized that most of them were referring to the fact that even though we don’t all stick our tongues in the toaster every the morning, America’s energy usage suggests that we’re all fairly hooked on that sweet, sweet voltage.

You may also read these articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *