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You might suspect that zapping the brain with electric currents is totally innovative and was never known before. Wrong. Some time ago, electrotherapy was a big thing in medicine and it was propagated for all kinds of ailments, including vision loss. Others have already recognized the value of “current therapy” for the treatment of optic nerve damage as the following account shows.

“Electrotherapy for optic nerve diseases was ignored completely in the last few decades. Neither neurologists nor ophthalmologists have carried out systematic studies of electric treatment. But we see a much different situation in the literature twenty to thirty years ago, where electrotherapy was enjoying a greater appreciation then nowadays. Back then we can find descriptions of the positive successes of electrotherapy for optic atrophies in textbooks and in individual (research) publications.”

The ophthalmologist who wrote this was Ludwig Mann,  of the Royal Eye Clinic of Breslau (formerly in Germany, now in Poland) in the year 1904. The books and papers he mentioned were published back in 1860 to 1880! So electrotherapy for vision restoration is actually old hat, but the knowledge was lost and only rediscovered more than one hundred years later.

There is a rather curious story of why electrotherapy, an innovative and apparently useful medical approach, completely vanished from the face of the medical world in the early 1900s. Reason: an overenthusiastic novelist used the idea of electrotherapy to create the fictional monster Frankenstein, who was zapped alive with electrotherapy by a “genius” doctor. This outrageous idea of a dead monster being raised to life was published in several fiction books and in the tabloid press and made for great and popular entertainment. But it condemned the field of electrotherapy to charlatanism with the fate of oblivion. Frankenstein was alive, but electrotherapy was dead.

Today, electric stimulation has become a rapidly expanding research field in neurorehabilitation. There was a small but widely noted landmark study published in 2000 by Michael Nitsche, MD, and Walter Paulus, MD, of the University of Göttingen in Germany which reignited interest in the topic. The number of respectable scientific reports has rapidly increased since then at a pace like a rallying stock market, especially in the field of cognitive enhancement and motor rehabilitation. Electrotherapy for treating visual problems was rediscovered in the 1980s when reports surfaced in Russia and Japan of treatment with some individual patients, but without much science behind it because no properly controlled clinical trials were carried out. These were first started in the lab of Professor Sabel in Magdeburg around 2005.