1950–1980: Dr. Robert Heath: Surgical Explorations in Brain Physiology

Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath was the chairman of the Dept. of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University; his invasive surgical brain physiology experiments were at the outer limits of existing neurophysiological knowledge. He surgically implanted electrodes into is psychiatric patients’ brains to test the effects of electrical brain stimulation (EBS). The first 19 patients who were subjected to EBS were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The published reports clearly indicate that the surgical procedures used were unsafe: “four had seizures, six of the nineteen schizophrenia patients developed infections, three had other neurologic sequela, one had acute cardiac failure, and two died from causes related to intracerebral infections.” (Baumeister, 2000)

The CIA and military provided funding for the Tulane experiments; and in 1954, Heath was the principal speaker about electrical stimulation at Edgewood Arsenal. In 1956, he reported that he and his colleagues had discovered a protein they called taraxein in the blood of schizophrenic patients and that when injected into healthy “volunteers” caused symptoms of schizophrenia. His claim received wide public and professional attention. But for forty years no one has duplicated that finding. (Baumeister, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 2011)

By 1968, Heath’s team had implanted deep brain electrodes into 52 patients — 42 with schizophrenia, 6 with intractable pain, and 4 with epilepsy. An additional 5 patients underwent the surgical procedure; one developed infection, one had a seizure during stimulation, and one who had been diagnosed with melancholia died six weeks after surgery from brain trauma. Heath claimed these were “harmless.” The experiments were medical travesties. Nevertheless, Heath continued to conduct EBS experiments for 30 years, inflicting pain, brain damage and degrading the humanity of 100 victims whom he turned into living human pincushions. As many as 125 electrodes and small tubes were implanted into the each of these patients’ brains to arouse the emotional core of their subjects. Heath and his team injected a wide variety of drugs directly into the brain tissue including LSD and bulbocapnine. In large doses, bulbocapnine was known to produce “catatonia and stupor.” According to one memo, the CIA sought information as to whether the drug could cause “loss of speech, loss of sensitivity to pain, loss of memory, loss of will power and an increase in toxicity in persons with a weak type of central nervous system.”

The patients’ emotional reactions to EBS and the drugs were observed and documented on film using one-way mirrors. Heath used the films showing patients’ reactions to EBS to illustrate his marvelous advance in neuroscience: ‘His face twists suddenly into a terrible grimace. One eye turns out and his features contort as though in the spasm of a horrible science-fiction metamorphosis. ‘It’s knocking me out. . . I just want to claw. . . I’ll kill you. . . I’ll kill you, Dr. Lawrence.”

Heath justified these cruel and inhumane experiments as being “therapeutic” in nature. The researchers’ “near-evangelical” enthusiasm for their technique falls within psychiatry’s tradition of brutal brain damaging procedures that over the decades have been promoted as “cures” for schizophrenia — e.g., ice pick lobotomies, electroshock, insulin coma, and currently prescribed drug cocktails. Heath’s experiments included lurid electronic sexual stimulation and response. In “Electrical Self-stimulation of the Brain” he described some patients who would self-stimulate 1,000 orgasms an hour. He publicized his work both in the scientific and popular literature. His abominable human experiments were mostly lauded during the first twenty years. And he was elected President of the Society for Biological Psychiatry in 1969. Dr. Peter Breggin reports that in Heath’s presidential address, “Perspectives in Biological Psychiatry,” he attributes all significant advances in psychiatry to be biological, and asserts that so-called mental patients suffer from “inappropriate anxiety” whose “instantaneous” cure is by psychosurgical techniques. As for drug addiction, Heath attributes it to a “neurological defect in their pleasure centers” that can be cured with corrective surgery. (Breggin. Return of Lobotomy, 1982)