This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
A shocking cure: Plug in for the ultimate recharge
18 February 2013 by Hazel Muir Magazine issue 2904. Subscribe and save For similar stories, visit the Histories Topic Guide
An electrical cure for ageing attracted the ire of the medical establishment. But could the jazz-age inventor have stumbled upon a genuine therapy? IT IS the middle of the Roaring 20s. Jazz rules the airwaves as a new generation of socialites shock the middle classes with their heady merry-go-round of cocktail parties and cabaret. In an era of youthful excess, what do you do when it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the bright young things? Otto Overbeck claimed to have the answer: Overbeck claimed his Rejuvenator could treat vision wire yourself up to his "Rejuvenator", plug in loss (Image: Overbeck's Rejuvenator (Aust.) Ltd., the battery and enjoy the scintillating buzz of Health and Rejuvenation [21st ed.] (Sydney, NSW: an electric current that slowly restores your Overbeck's Rejuvenator (Aust.) Ltd., c.1936)) body's youthful vigour. He claimed the device could dissolve the aches and fatigue of age, reverse baldness, and restore colour to greying hair. It could even soothe serious medical complaints, according to his pamphlets. Applying its electrodes to the eyelids could "treat" vision loss, for instance, and zapping your head or back could heal chronic pain. Orders for the Rejuvenator flew in from across the globe, although Overbeck attracted the ire of doctors. It sounds like the tale of an inscrupulous quack, but there is a twist: remarkably similar devices are now showing promise for the treatment of many disorders, including depression and dementia. Overbeck was born in 1860 to a family of mixed European origins that had recently moved to England. He studied chemistry at University College London before becoming scientific director of a brewery in Grimsby. He seems to have been more of an inventor and entrepreneur at heart, though, winning patents for innovations such as new machines for brewing beer, a yeast-based "Nutritious Extract" similar to Marmite and a method for de-alcoholising beer. Overbeck had also developed a fascination with longevity and the elusive elixir of life. When he was only in his late 20s, he expressed this in verse: "Yet one more drop, and now! What do I see! The forms of early young! Forgotten dreams to me; Rise with the misty clouds from age's wintry rime; And boyhood's joy and health and summer climb -
With scent of roses fills the air! Old age be-gone! For eternal youth prepare." The quest to recapture youth and vitality had become a full-blown craze by the early 20th century, when physiologist Eugen Steinach promoted the "Steinach operation", a one-sided vasectomy, to elderly men. The goal was to limit sperm production while boosting levels of "hormone" (later named testosterone), which, he claimed, could increase energy, stave off ageing and restore the libido. The poet William Butler Yeats had the operation, aged 69. "It revived my creative power," he wrote. "It revived also sexual desire; and that in all likelihood will last me until I die." Then in the 1920s and 1930s, the Russian surgeon Serge Voronoff rose to fame in France for implanting tissue from monkey testicles into the bodies of old men. The aim was to restore vitality and virility and a sense of youth. Voronoff made a great deal of money in the process.
The body electric
Overbeck took a different tack in the early 1920s. He was suffering from chronic kidney disease at the time, and his ailment didn't respond to conventional treatment, according to James Stark, a historian of medicine at the University of Leeds in the UK. For reasons that remain obscure, he hit on the idea of applying electric currents to his body. "Unfortunately, we don't have any of his correspondence or his diary, so his personal interest in this is difficult to make out," says Stark. But the treatment seemed to pay off. "Whether it was to do with the fact that he was using electrical current or not, he was in better health through the 1920s," says Stark, who spoke about Overbeck at a conference on the history of science in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, last year. Inspired by his treatment's apparent success, Overbeck developed the Rejuvenator for people dissatisfied with conventional medicine to use in the comfort of their own homes. The device consisted of a collection of electrodes shaped like long tubes, combs or round plates, powered by a primitive battery. According to Stark, Overbeck recommended that the combs be applied to the head because their teeth could slide between the hair, whereas the plates were best for larger areas such as the lower back. We don't know the strength of the current - Overbeck only referred to it as "gentle" or "mild" - but it must have been very weak; a report by the British Medical Association (BMA) concluded that any tingling sensation was virtually imperceptible. In an attempt to lend medical credibility to his device, Overbeck published a book entitled A New Electronic Theory of Life that advocated the link between electricity and health. Electrotherapy could effectively treat any ailment, he reported, apart from deformities or infectious diseases. It could also reverse signs of ageing, like thinning or greying hair. Overbeck went on to run vigorous newspaper advertising campaigns for the Rejuvenator around the world. They often included testimonials - unauthorised or simply fabricated, says Stark - from satisfied customers and medical practitioners. One pamphlet on "health and rejuvenation", published in Australia, highlights quotes from several physicians. "The Rejuvenator has been beneficial in a case of muscular atrophy of the legs after severe illness, and personally I have used it on my bald head and am certainly gradually getting a good crop of hair for which I am very thankful and pleased," wrote one. Another medic claimed: "I have found it of the highest curative assistance in cases of asthmatical troubles... also such prevalent conditions as anaemia, digestive disorders, and general debility." In reality, the medical profession was hostile to Overbeck and his project. "It was viewed with great suspicion," says Stark. "He never had any medical training, so as far as the profession was concerned, he was a quack and an outsider." The BMA was concerned that the device might cause burns, particularly because Overbeck recommended cleansing with soap - ideally his own "Rejuvenator Soap", of course - before applying electrodes to the skin. There's no evidence, however, that it caused any harm.
Whether Overbeck believed his own claims is a matter of debate, since he didn't leave any diaries or letters that reveal clues. There's no doubt that he struck a rich vein, though. Part of his genius was to ensure that he alone could supply replacement batteries for the Rejuvenator, guaranteeing himself a steady stream of income. After selling the device for just three years, he had earned enough to buy a palatial house in Devon, now managed by the National Trust. It was only after his death in the late 30s that sales dwindled, leaving the Rejuvenator a forgotten relic of the jazz age. But might Overbeck have actually stumbled upon an effective treatment, despite his medical incompetence? "It's possible," says Colleen Loo, a psychiatrist from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Without records of the currents used or reliable reports of the treatment's outcome, we cannot know for sure what effects the Rejuvenator delivered. Nevertheless, evidence is growing that small electric currents can treat some disorders. Investigating therapies for depression, Loo and her colleagues have carried out the largest controlled trial to date of a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which sends electrical signals into the front of the brain via electrodes on the scalp. The current is typically just 1 or 2 milliamps - enough to deliver an occasional tingling or itching sensation, but nowhere near the hundreds of milliamps used in electroconvulsive therapy. The trial involved 64 people with depression who had failed to respond to antidepressant drugs. They were randomly split into two groups, one receiving 20 minutes of tDCS daily for three weeks, the other a mock therapy over the same period. In January 2012, Loo's team reported that the volunteers' scores of depression improved modestly for the real treatment group compared to the controls. People who received an additional three weeks of this electrical therapy showed significant further improvement (British Journal of Psychiatry, vol 200, p 52). "We were really pleased with the results of those who had six weeks' tDCS," says Loo. One person in the study who also happened to suffer from chronic pain reported the pain had improved, too, she says. Why the treatment might work is not entirely clear. Depending on how it is applied, the current probably mutes or amplifies brain activity by changing the electrical charge in nerve cell membranes. The effect can be lasting, perhaps because the current can also alter protein production at the synapses between neurons, allowing brain connections to reconfigure more easily. This should allow doctors to reverse some of the patterns of brain activity that seem to be associated with depression. Although it's early days, several teams are investigating tDCS as a possible treatment for a whole range of other disorders including migraine, dementia, schizophrenia, chronic pain and attention deficit disorder. There might be other positive effects to getting a regular buzz, too. The technique has been shown to boost learning, for instance: in 2010, a team at the University of Oxford reported that tDCS improved the maths skills of a small group of volunteers. Further rigorous studies will be essential before tDCS can become a routine therapy. But one day, it might turn out that there was more to Overbeck's fast-buck quackery than originally met the eye. This article appeared in print under the headline "The ultimate recharge" Hazel M uir is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells, UK
From issue 2904 of New Scientist magazine, page 41-43. As a subscriber, you have unlimited access to our online archive. Why not browse past issues of New Scientist magazine?
If you would like to reuse any content from New Scientist, either in print or online, please contact the syndication department first for permission. New Scientist does not own rights to photos, but there are a variety of licensing options available for use of articles and graphics we own the copyright to.
Back to article