The US Food and Drug Administration wants to ban electrical stimulation devices used to treat behavioural problems, saying they pose an "unreasonable and substantial" risk to public health. Uh, you think? It's not often that the FDA makes moves to ban a device, but the US government agency has concluded that these tools should no longer be used as a means to modify behaviour. Electrical stimulation devices (ESDs) work by sending electrical shocks through electrodes attached on the skin to condition patients so that they will refrain from self-injurious or aggressive behaviours.
Electrical stimulation devices are not to be confused with electroconvulsive therapy, a brain stimulation therapy used to treat major depression and other mood disorders. With ECT, the induced seizures provide temporarily relief of symptoms, and are not meant to deliberately hurt the patient.
ESDs belong in a medieval dungeon and not a 21st century clinic, so it's surprising to learn that these Pavlovian torture tools are still being used. To the best of the FDA's knowledge, only one facility is using ESDs in the United States, the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center (JRC) in Canton, Massachusetts. The government agency estimates that about 45 to 50 individuals are currently being exposed to shock treatments.
Research shows that the practice causes significant psychological and physical problems, including depression, anxiety, pain, burns, post-traumatic stress disorder, tissue damage and errant shocks from malfunctioning devices. Using ESDs can also backfire, sometimes causing the unwanted behaviours to get even worse. Importantly, many of the individuals exposed to these devices have intellectual or developmental disabilities, making it difficult for them to communicate pain or consent.
In its place, the FDA recommends more, ahem, modern treatments, such as positive behavioural support and medications. The agency will issue a proposed rule on Monday, which, if approved, would remove these devices from the marketplace completely.