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Magnetic flimmers: ‘light in the electromagnetic darkness’

Johannes W. Martens, Peter J. Koehler, Joost Vijselaar
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/aws185 971-979 First published online: 5 October 2012

Summary

Transcranial magnetic stimulation has become an important field for both research in neuroscience and for therapy since Barker in 1985 showed that it was possible to stimulate the human motor cortex with an electromagnet. Today for instance, transcranial magnetic stimulation can be used to measure nerve conduction velocities and to create virtual lesions in the brain. The latter option creates the possibility to inactivate parts of the brain temporarily without permanent damage. In 2008, the American Food and Drugs Administration approved repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation as a therapy for major depression under strict conditions. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation has not yet been cleared for treatment of other diseases, including schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, obesity and Parkinson’s disease, but results seem promising. Transcranial magnetic stimulation, however, was not invented at the end of the 20th century. The discovery of electromagnetism, the enthusiasm for electricity and electrotherapy, and the interest in Beard’s concept of neurasthenia already resulted in the first electromagnetic treatments in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this article, we provide a history of electromagnetic stimulation circa 1900. From the data, we conclude that Mesmer’s late 18th century ideas of ‘animal magnetism’ and the 19th century absence of physiological proof had a negative influence on the acceptance of this therapy during the first decades of the 20th century. Electromagnetism disappeared from neurological textbooks in the early 20th century to recur at the end of that century.

  • history of medicine
  • history of electromagnetic stimulation
  • phosphene
  • d’Arsonval
  • transcranial magnetic stimulation
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