The emperor Claudius suffered from the most savage migraines. By 46AD, he was in his late fifties and, presumably at his wits’ end from the pain, he agreed that his esteemed doctor Scribonius Largus could try something new and a little off-the-wall.
Largus, who had his work cut out for him looking after a boss with a long list of health problems and a mercurial temper, paid a local fisherman to catch a couple of electric eels from the Mediterranean Sea. Back at the palace, he held them to the emperor’s temples in an attempt to quell his excruciating headache. It is the first recorded instance of electrical stimulation being used as a medical treatment.
Fast-forward two thousand years or so to a couple of students in their early twenties in a bedroom in Leeds, using electricity in an attempt to make their lives better and easier. A brain stimulation kit bought on the internet includes the wires, electrode sponges, headband and basic device needed to get them started. A nine-volt battery is not included.
Katie, 23, has suffered from anxiety and depression since she was 18. When her boyfriend Lee told her about transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS), a form of neurostimulation that involves administering a low level of electrical current to the brain, she was sceptical. But Lee had heard that it could help people with mood disorders and wondered if she might benefit.
“The first time, I freaked out,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘I can’t cope with putting electrical stimulations in my brain.’ Lee put this machine on and, it’s difficult to explain, but everything went empty in a good way. I can’t remember if I’ve ever felt like that. I felt relaxed and chilled inside. It was a mad sensation and an out-of-body experience.”
She’d tried antidepressants in the past but found they didn’t work for her. Now Katie uses the kit regularly. “It’s improved my life and improved my mind,” she says.
I ask if he is concerned that zapping his brain could be dangerous. He is a bit worried – “At the end of the day, you’re frying your brain” – but hasn’t noticed any negative effects so far.