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Insulin Shock Therapy December 3, 2012

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in Medication, Mental Hospital, Schizophrenia.
Tags: , ,

In a desperate attempt to find a cure for mental illness in the early part of the last century, barbaric treatments were invented. Insulin shock therapy was one such treatment.

In insulin shock therapy, a patient was put into an insulin coma six days a week for months on end in an attempt to “cure” schizophrenia by “resetting” the brain. Occasionally that seventh day was filled with electro-shock therapy. Sometimes this “treatment” went on for years.

Insulin shock therapy was started by psychiatrist Manfred Sakel in 1927 when he began to use low (sub-coma) doses of insulin to treat drug addicts and psychopaths in Berlin. Interpreting his results as successful, he got the idea of “resetting” the brains of schizophrenics using the same therapy. News of his work spread, and this treatment was picked up by mental hospitals worldwide.

After being injected by insulin, patients experienced various symptoms including flushing, pallor, perspiration, salivation, drowsiness, or restlessness before falling into a coma. Each coma lasted for up to an hour and was terminated by intravenous glucose. Seizures sometimes occurred before or during the coma, and these were viewed as positive events.  Only the healthiest patients were chosen for the treatment, since it was so hard on their bodies. Broken bones were common.

For years, this “therapy” was performed on the mentally ill, including John Forbes Nash, the brilliant mathematician whose life story is told in A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. The book goes into a little detail about his treatment.

Insulin shock therapy started to fall in disfavor when Harold Bourne, a British psychiatrist, published a paper entitled “the insulin myth” in Lancet in 1953, in which he debunked the therapy.  Then, in 1957, Lancet published the results of an experiment whereby insulin shock treatment was shown to be an ineffective treatment for schizophrenia.  Over the years, it slowly began to fall into disfavor, and is now thought of as barbaric.

It is relatively easy to see why insulin shock therapy was quickly adopted by the mental health community.  Up to that point, there was no other treatment available. Anything that had a remote possibility of working was greeted with open arms, and the “science” behind the treatment made perfect sense. “Resetting” the brain would result in curing the illness, they reasoned.

Eventually, science caught up with insulin shock therapy, and the medical community was forced to abandon this treatment, but not before much pain and suffering occurred.

In the future, it will be interesting to see which of our current therapies are viewed as barbaric as insulin shock therapy and lobotomies are viewed today.



1. veva525 - December 4, 2012

An incredibly well-written and insightful post. And I agree – which of our current therapies will, in the future, be considered completely barbaric indeed. I’ve often wondered if the long term side effects of prescription medication therapies are worth the initial symptoms of relief (and I say initial because I have never experienced anything more lasting, but I know that other individuals may feel differently), and why some of them aren’t put into the “dangerous” category. Just a thought. Thanks so much for sharing this!

2. Gledwood - December 8, 2012

That must have “compromised the brain”… to put it mildly.
I’m so glad I wasn’t a psyche patient in that era. SO glad…

3. naomi thredgold - March 3, 2015

I was given insulin shock treatment in 1972. I find this astounding as all references say it was stopped in the 1960s. I am in my 60s now and decided to look for long term effects of insulin shock theropy, as I wondered if some of my present health isssues are related to it. I can find no references to such issues. Anyone else have any references.

Copperpenni - April 19, 2015

I too have health problems concerning blood sugar. I was given insulin shock therapy in 1969 for depression. I developed low blood sugar problems 10 years later. I do think they are related.

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