A new paper in a neurosurgery journal sheds light on one of the most bizarre and shocking medical procedures ever invented. The disturbing paper comes from Patric Blomstedt of Sweden’s Umeå University.
Blomstedt tells the story of a technique called ‘cerebral impaludation’, which literally means ‘putting malaria into the brain’. In this operation, which was performed on over 1000 people in the 1930s, blood from a malaria-infected person was injected straight into the frontal lobes of the unfortunate patient.
Why would anyone even dream of such a procedure? The story goes back to 1918, when a Austrian doctor, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, discovered that a bout of malaria could produce improvement in patients with advanced syphilis infection of the brain. Neurosyphilis was otherwise incurable at that time, and led to inevitable dementia, psychosis, and death.
Wagner-Jauregg actually won the Nobel Prize for this dangerous, but effective, treatment. (It wasn’t quite as dangerous as it sounds, because malaria, unlike syphilis, was treatable.) It’s now thought that the reason malarial therapy worked is that malaria produces a high fever, creating temperatures too high for the syphilitic bacteria to survive.
But Wagner-Jauregg didn’t inject malaria into the brain of his patients. The invention of cerebral impaludation was due to a French psychiatrist, Maurice Ducosté.
“Maurice Ducosté (courtesy of Michel Caire)” From Blomstedt (2020)
Ducosté first published details of his brain impaludation technique in 1932, but by then he’d already carried out hundreds of operations, going back as early as 1920. Not all of Ducosté’s patients had syphili: he seemed willing to experiment on anyone with severe mental illness:
Before applying this method in the paralytics [i.e. late-stage syphilis cases], I had used it a very large number of times in schizophrenics, encephalitics, maniacs. Since almost five years, I have done several hundreds of injections of various serums into the frontal lobes of the insane. Some have received up to twelve consecutive injections .
As well as malarial blood, Ducosté tried injecting other “serums” into his subjects’ brains. Amongst others he used: diphtheria antitoxin; a mixture of “equal part blood and tetanus toxin”; and even anticobra serum, which is a treatment for snake-bites.
From Blomstedt (2020) Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery
Ducosté claimed that his procedure was highly effective in cases of syphilis. In fact, he reported, it could leave people healthier and more intelligent than they had ever been:
It seems that the injection into the brain stimulates the intellectual faculties, modifies the character, provides youth and strength: many of these cured paralytics occupy positions which one would not have dared to confide them before their illness; many have become athletes, filled with energy and activity; a certain number among them, impotent for years, have procreated children of excellent shape.
He admitted, however, that it was not nearly so effective in schizophrenia and other non-syphilitic disorders.
So what became of cerebral impaludation? Ducosté’s work on the procedure seems to have ended in 1940. A handful of other psychiatrists in France and abroad experimented with the procedure, but it never became popular.
However, Blomstedt points to evidence that Ducosté may have inspired the development of prefrontal lobotomy – an operation which was adopted around the world.
In 1932, Ducosté appeared at a medical conference in Paris, where he gave a talk immediately after one by the Portuguese psychiatrist Egas Moniz.
A few years later, Moniz became famous as the father of lobotomy – he had invented a procedure which involved injecting pure alcohol into the prefrontal lobes to cause ‘therapeutic’ lesions. Moniz never cited Ducosté as a predecessor, but Blomstedt says a connection is likely.
In fact, Ducosté’s own procedure was known to cause damage to the brain at the injection sites (as he acknowledged), so Ducosté was, in a sense, already doing lobotomy. Moniz merely substituted alcohol for Ducosté’s serums.
We can only be thankful that we today live in an age in which no-one would even consider injecting such dangerous substances into any part of the human body.