SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN OCTOBER 2005
He implanted radio-equipped electrodearrays, which he called “stimoceivers,”in cats, monkeys, chimpanzees, gibbons,bulls and even humans, and he showedthat he could control subjects’ minds andbodies with the push of a button.Yet after Delgado moved to Spain in1974, his reputation in the U.S. faded,not only from public memory but fromthe minds and citation lists of other sci-entists. He described his results in morethan 500 peer-reviewed papers and in awidely reviewed 1969 book, but theseare seldom cited by modern researchers.In fact, some familiar with his early workassume he died. But Delgado, who re-cently moved with his wife, Caroline,from Spain to San Diego, Calif., is verymuch alive and well, and he has a uniqueperspective on modern efforts to treatvarious disorders by stimulating speciﬁcareas of the brain.
When LobotomiesWere the Rage
born in 1915
in Ronda, Spain, Del-gado went on to earn a medical degreefrom the University of Madrid in the1930s. Although he has long beendogged by rumors that he supported thefascist regime of Francisco Franco, heactually served in the medical corps of the Republican Army (which opposedFranco during Spain’s civil war) while hewas a medical student. After Francocrushed the Republicans, Delgado wasdetained in a concentration camp for ﬁvemonths before resuming his studies.He originally intended to become aneye doctor, like his father. But a stint ina physiology laboratory
plus exposureto the writings of the great Spanish neu-roscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal
lefthim entranced by “the many mysteriesof the brain. How little was known then.How little is known now!” Delgado wasparticularly intrigued by the experimentsof Swiss physiologist Walter Rudolf Hess. Beginning in the 1920s, Hess haddemonstrated that he could elicit behav-iors such as rage, hunger and sleepinessin cats by electrically stimulating differ-ent spots in their brains with wires.In 1946 Delgado won a yearlong fel-lowship at Yale. In 1950 he accepted aposition in its department of physiology,then headed by John Fulton, who playeda crucial role in the history of psychia-try. In a 1935 lecture in London, Fultonhad reported that a violent, “neurotic”chimpanzee named Becky had becomecalm and compliant after surgical de-struction of her prefrontal lobes. In theaudience was Portuguese psychiatristEgas Moniz, who started performinglobotomies on psychotic patients andclaimed excellent results. After Monizwon a Nobel Prize in 1949, lobotomiesbecame an increasingly popular treat-ment for mental illness.Initially disturbed that his method of pacifying a chimpanzee had been appliedto humans, Fulton later became a cau-tious proponent of psychosurgery. Del-gado disagreed with his mentor’s stance.“I thought Fulton and Moniz’s idea of destroying the brain was absolutely hor-rendous,” Delgado recalls. He felt itwould be “far more conservative” totreat mental illness by applying the elec-trical stimulation methods pioneered byHess
who shared the 1949 prize withMoniz. “My idea was to
loboto-my,” Delgado says, “with the help of electrodes implanted in the brain.”One key to Delgado’s scientiﬁc suc-cess was his skill as an inventor; a Yalecolleague once called him a “technolog-ical wizard.” In his early experiments,wires ran from implanted electrodesout through the skull and skin to bulkyelectronic devices that recorded data anddelivered electrical pulses. This setup re-stricted subjects’ movements and leftthem prone to infections. Hence, Del-gado designed radio-equipped stimo-ceivers as small as half-dollars that couldbe fully implanted in subjects. His otherinventions included an early version of the cardiac pacemaker and implantable“chemitrodes” that could release preciseamounts of drugs directly into speciﬁcareas of the brain.In 1952 Delgado co-authored the ﬁrstpeer-reviewed paper describing long-term implantation of electrodes in hu-mans, narrowly beating a report by Rob-ert Heath of Tulane University. Over thenext two decades Delgado implantedelectrodes in some 25 human subjects,most of them schizophrenics and epilep-tics, at a now defunct mental hospital inRhode Island. He operated, he says, onlyon desperately ill patients whose disor-ders had resisted all previous treatments.Early on, his placement of electrodes inhumans was guided by animal experi-ments, studies of brain-damaged peopleand the work of Canadian neurosurgeonWilder Penﬁeld; beginning in the 1930s,Penfield stimulated epileptics’ brainswith electrodes before surgery to deter-mine where he should operate.
Taming a Fighting Bull
that stimulationof the motor cortex could elicit speciﬁcphysical reactions, such as movement of the limbs. One patient clenched his ﬁstwhen stimulated, even when he tried toresist. “I guess, doctor, that your electric-ity is stronger than my will,” the patientcommented. Another subject, turninghis head from side to side in response tostimulation, insisted he was doing so vol-
Jose M. R. Delgado, a pioneer in brain-implant technology, is perhaps mostfamous for halting a charging bull by merely pressing a button on a device thatsent signals to the animal’s brain.
In the early 1970s Delgado went from being acclaimed to being criticized. In1974 he moved from the U.S. to Spain and then gradually faded from publicconsciousness and the citation lists of neuroscientists.
His accomplishments, however, helped to pave the way for modern brain-implanttechnology, which is enjoying a resurgence today and is improving life for patientswith epilepsy and such movement disorders as Parkinson’s and dystonia.
Delgado, now 90, recently returned to the U.S., complete with strong opinionson the promise and perils of the ongoing work.
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