Can “Neuro-Electric Therapy” Treat Drug Addiction?

imageI have been sent an email where a recruitment consultant was looking for someone to train as a ‘drug worker’ using a technique called Neuro-Electric Therapy (NET) to work on a Scottish substance misuse programme. The idea appears to be that by passing small electrical currents though someone in a specific pattern you could help people overcome drug addictions.

It is quite a remarkable claim. Drug addiction is a complex problem. It cannot just be simplistically reduced to biological causes with corresponding direct treatments. Drug addiction sits within much wider psychological and sociological framework and there are no magic bullets. Even within a wider treatment regime, it would appear remarkable that electric shocks can play any role.

But the job advert says,

The successful candidates will get the opportunity to work with cutting edge treatments, involving Neuroelectric therapy, candidates with previous experience of this, would be beneficial. Full training will be given to the successful candidate.

The technique has some high profile supporters. In 2007, the Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell, was reported to be calling for “a radical shake-up in Scotland’s drug rehabilitation policy after witnessing a controversial new heroin addiction treatment in action.” He had visited a trial of the technique that had apparently been invented by a Scottish neurosurgeon, Dr Meg Patterson. (We shall come on to the quality results of those trials in time). McConnell was convinced and said “We’re at the stage in Scotland where we need to have open minds and be willing to try new things”.

Is Neuro-Electric Therapy a plausible and worthwhile approach to drug addiction, or just wishful thinking and quackery? In order to gain some insight into this question, let us go back two-hundred and fifty years to the time when electricity was first being experimented with.

The discovery of new phenomena in nature appear to be accompanied with unbridled enthusiasm that the new discoveries will solve all of mankind’s problems. In the last century, the discovery of radioactivity was followed by a multitude of quack remedies based on radium salts before people discovered this was a pretty poor idea. Similarly, the discovery of electrical properties of materials brought forth claims for the universal healing powers of electricity.

Perhaps the first prominent proponent of electrical cures was John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Although best known for his theology, Wesley’s best selling book was an 18th Century self-help book called, Primitive Physic, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing most Diseases. Wesley’s philosophy of medicine was that his god had created in nature all the solutions to people’s illnesses – we only needed to look in his creation, the hedgerows and fields, to find cures for almost anything. Turnips, water and cold bathing formed a majority of this type of cure. Wesley was insistent the cures should be available to the common man and that doctors and apothecaries were corrupt influences, only intent on making fortunes by selling complicated and unnecessary chemical medicines – a familiar cry even today within ‘natural health’ circles.

Ironically, then that his favourite cure was based on the most modern and artificial of inventions, the electrical friction machine. Wesley’s enthusiasm for electricity was clear: “one, I must aver from personal knowledge, grounded on a thousand experiments, to be far superior to all other medicines I have known; I mean Electricity.” He saw it as a “universal cure” that was successful against deafness, burns, convulsions, gout, shingles, toothache and many other ailments. Importantly, he saw its greatest application for those with ‘nervous disorders’, “Perhaps there is no nervous distemper whatever which would not yield to a steady use of this remedy”.

Wesley became a passionate electrotherapist, setting up free clinics in Bristol and London in order to shock the poor. He went on to write in 1760 The Desideratum: Or, Electricity made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense.

Wesley may well have faced some push back from the mainstream medical profession of his day, and he did not believe they would ever take up a simple and cheap cure that threatened their pharmaceutical money spinners,

I would beg one Thing (if it be not too great a Favour) from the Gentlemen of the Faculty, and indeed from all who desire Health and Freedom from Pain, either for themselves or their Neighbors. It is, That none of them would condemn they know not what: That they would hear the Cause, before they pass Sentence: That they would not peremptorily pronounce against Electricity, while they know little or nothing about it. Rather let every candid Man take a little Pains, to understand the Question before he determines it. Let him for two or three Weeks (at least) try it for himself in the above-named Disorders. And then his own Senses will show him, whether it is a mere Play-thing, or the noblest Medicine yet known in the World.

Again, this theme of “Don’t criticise it until you try it’ resonates today on the chat boards of homeopaths, acupuncturists and chiropractors.

However, others noted that Wesley might be fooling himself into believing his shocking was effective when it was not. Another minister, and famous chemist, Joseph Priestly, wrote,

This account of the medical use of electricity by Mr Lovett and Mr Wesley is certainly liable to an objection which will always lie against the accounts of these persons, who not being of the faculty, cannot be supposed capable of distinguishing with accuracy either the nature of the disorder or the consequence of a seeming cure.

In other words, to the incautious and untrained eye, a treatment may appear to be working when in fact it is doing nothing; a lesson that many have not yet understood to this day. Other contemporary cautious minds, such as Benjamin Franklin also warned against jumping to conclusions “[I] never knew any permanent advantage from electricity in palsies.”

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Nonetheless, the idea of being able to electric shock all your ills away became something of a craze with personal devices being sold well into the 20th Century as this 1907 advert shows, still using the words of Wesley himself.

Indeed, throughout the 19th Century thousands of electrical shock devices were sold as household cures. They ranged from galvanic battery operated devices to electro-mechanical boxes that created shocks by spinning a rotor in a magnetic field. They are these days readily available in auctions and on eBay as curious quack devices, but prices are kept quite high by enthusiastic buyers from something called the BDSM community.

A few months ago, I bought my own device and have been using it at my Skeptic in the Pub talks to wake up my audience. It is a beautiful work of Victorian consumer craftsmanship with a mahogany box, brass wheels and a huge horseshoe magnet (now sadly weakened).

Below is a video of my “Newly Invented Magneto-Electric Machine for Nervous Diseases” and you can marvel at its workings.

Shocking people back to health, especially with mental health issues, continues to this day with the controversial Electroconvulsive therapy. With the rise of this treatment in the thirties, which many find repugnant, the domestic use of shocking machines dwindled away. The efficacy of such treatment has still not been settled. Even milder forms of shock treatment, such as with TENS machines during labour, still remain controversial in that their evidence base remains weak.

So, what of Neuro-Electric Therapy? It’s origins do not appear to be directly descended from the English electrotherapy tradition. The inventor, Scottish neurosurgeon, Dr Meg Patterson (now deceased) appears to have discovered the effects of electrical shocks whilst working in Hong Kong. She appears to have fallen for the hype surrounding Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 where the Chinese were claimed to be performing major surgery on people using acupuncture as analgesia. The claims turned out to be a hoax – and one that was still perpetuated by the BBC up to a few years ago. The patients undergoing major surgery had been given huge quantities of local anaesthetics and sedatives. Sticking needles in them was purely theatre.

But Patterson’s colleague, A Dr Wen, wanted to investigate electro-acupuncture for analgesia. It is not clear where this technique came from, but it appears to be a form of ear acupuncture, a technique invented by a Frenchman in the 1950’s and then exported to China as part of its Mao inspired invention of ‘Traditional’ Chinese Medicine. Electrical probes were stuck into specific parts of the ear and then a current applied. Wen noticed [pdf] than in he experiments on drug addicts that they reported during her experiments that they had lost their craving for drugs (only for it to return a few hours later). Over time, Dr Patterson concluded that it was not the acupuncture that caused these supposed effects, but the application of electricity.

Patterson then set out to make a number of extraordinary claims. Amongst these is her ’discovery’ that different waveform were required to treat different addictions. She also claimed a dropout rate of 1.6%. Your alarm bells ought to be ringing.

imageDr Patterson died in 2002. Neuro-Electric Therapy is now promoted by her son, Lorne Patterson, a psychiatric nurse. A company set up in Mt Laurel in the US now manufactures devices to deliver Neuro-Electric Therapy. NET Device Corp promote the device to “reduce the acute and chronic symptoms of drug withdrawal.”

The device is ‘programmed’ by selecting the right drug waveform and then electrodes are taped to the ears, where “NET modulates neurotransmitter systems disrupted by chronic substance abuse”. Lorne Patterson is now their “chief clinician”.

On the surface, selling a black box where you dial in codes to select the right healing programme is right out of the madder end of quackery with devices such as radionic machines. Can it really be true that different addictions to different sorts of drugs respond to different sorts of electrical waveforms giving you shocks? It’s a highly reductionist view of what addiction might be and smacks of pseudoscience. We are told that the American company now making the device, “digitised the old NET machine with its 40,000 possible combinations of currents, frequencies and wave patterns – which required six months’ supervised clinical training to use. The new box has a computer-coded key for each of the main drugs. It is far simpler to use clinically.”

Whether this is the greatest medical breakthrough in a century or just plain gobbledegook, we ought to look at what actual trials say. Does the box actually help people live lives without drugs? It is just possible that giving an addict electric shocks as they go through withdrawal may help them somewhat.

Some RCTs have taken place and show mixed results with a blinded trial showing no difference between NET and placebo treatments. Some limited observational trials appear to have taken place where addicts are removed to a Scottish cottage to go through the withdrawal process. The results, as reported in the Independent, do not look like they show the remarkable success previously claimed. Of the first six men, to go through the trial, two had smuggled in drugs, two walked out and two claimed to have been cured. A second week with six women appeared to be more successful. There are problems interpreting these results, however. Heroin addicts have been known to lie in order to take them one step towards their next fix. And this is acknowledged by the research team. “There is something about opiate addiction, more than any other, which seems to turn lying into a game”.

NET Corp also appear to be working with UK universities to investigate the treatment. The University of Glasgow has stated it will be doing “fMRI brain scanning to identify those areas of the addict brain that are being influenced by the NET treatment”. This is unlikely to resolve any issues. No matter what parts of the brain light up under the fMRI scan, it will tell us nothing about whether heroin addicts undergoing the treatment will be able to return to lives where they can cope without drugs.  I fear that such research lends respectability to techniques without establishing reasons to believe a treatment will be effective.

Meanwhile, we have the usual celebrity endorsements of the technique from Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.

So, we do not know if Neuro-Electric Therapy really has any meaningful effect on addicts. Maybe the associated support they get whilst staying in their farmhouse does some good. We will not know from the sort of trials going on now. The origins of the technique, both in the  historical wishful thinking of Wesley and modern discredited quackery of acupuncture do not do it any favours. But nonetheless, it would appear that the allure of a simple cure for a problem that destroys lives and costs millions is very tempting to Scottish politicians.

The debate about such techniques has not advanced much beyond Wesley’s time. There are those, perhaps fuelled by ideological dogma or political wishful thinking, who just want to heed Wesley’s advice to let their ‘own senses show them’. Whilst a few other more scientifically thoughtful people recognise that direct, uncritical observation can easily lead to false conclusions.

One this is sure. We should be distrustful of politicians pushing such programmes as they indeed “cannot be supposed capable of distinguishing with accuracy either the nature of the disorder or the consequence of a seeming cure.”

21 Comments on Can “Neuro-Electric Therapy” Treat Drug Addiction?

  1. This is surely the same black box which received a high profile in the 70s(Eric Clapton) and later in the 80s(Boy George), with celebrities crediting the Meg Paterson and her black box with their cure.

    As is the case with Scientology, Numerology and (insert any number of quacking ridiculous belief systems), celebrity endorsement seems to contribute significantly more to the sustainment of absurd myths than 40 years of scientific endeavour, or 2 minutes of reasoned thinking.

    • The fact that this box has helped me and 5 other people i know out of 7 or 8 that went for the treatment suggests to me that this is NOT another “quacking ridiculous belief system” If indeed you do think this is another one of those ideas please let us know of your direct experience of this treatment enlighten us Davey. Give us your 2 minutes worth of reasoned thinking. This cannot possibly be compared to something that truly is absurd – Scientology.
      With this treatment it is very hard to get an accurate number of how succesful it is as an addict has to really want to come off the drugs in many cases people seek treatment due to outside influence ie family pressure and pressure from court orders etc. But i think if there could be a way of determining or separating the people that truly want to get clean and those who do not then the results would speak for themselves.

  2. Hi,

    I was suspicious about this theory after watching a movie where a drug addicted women was treated with Neuro-electric therapy. In the movie, it was not only small discharge but a full scale electrocution. Are people as crazy as that in believing that could work ? I told myself. This movie dates back in the 80s so the theory may have been discredited since then, but seems it isn’t..

    BUT ! My own experience, not with neuro-electric therapy with electrical discharge has shown that it could make some sort of cense. By the way, I’ve never used such a device and I will never will.

    I’m affected with epilepcy since a very long time. When I was a child, I was doing something like 1 seizure a day but as medication got better, the situation got better. It got better, but it’s never been completely resolved.

    An epileptic seizure (generalized – grand mal) is like a huge electric discharge in the brain. I do one seizure a month, and what I came to realize after some time is that I feel better after it happens. Then, my psychological state (mood, thinking, awareness) is going down. Then, after another “natural electric discharge” it goes better. I talked about that to my doctor and he sais it’s not the first time he’s been telling that from his patient.

    If this therapy (Neuro-Electric Therapy) is fixing all health issue ? I dont think so but one thing is sure is that it’s not placebo in my case, it really helps. It’s not fun to have a seizure but it’s kind of relief for my emotional state.


  3. I went on line to find one of these machines for a friend of mine going through menapause and discoverd your self righteous ignorant sophomoric site. Stimulating the brain to produce endorphins (endogenous morophine) is extremely well researched and proven technology. You people are irresponsible and ignorant. Authorities on everything? While you toot your horns, many people are suffering from all sorts of endorphine related conditions, will turn away from the Net. While most people with chemical addiction also are best served by having counseling so that once the chemical addiction is aborted they can resolved the personal problems that got them into the substance abuse in the first place, still many people have developed chemical dependency simple by irresponsible medical perscriptions or isolated events in their life. I am a Ph.D, and I used this technology back in the late 80’s practicing with Dr William Parker with excellent results. Dr. Parker knew Meg Patterson personally. So we were way ahead of the curve. We were still using the device built by Bob Beck that required the selection of frequencies specific to the substance – based on Dr. Patterson’s research. The science behind it is extremely well researched and yes it works well. It was originally discovered via the use of electro acupuncture which I suppose you geniuses think is quacky too? I used it with alcohol,cocaine, morphine, and simple depression with great results. Once the brain develops a pattern that it does not need to produce endorphins because the receptors in the brain have already been stimulated by a molecule of exogenous substance, it ceases to produce the endorphin. Stop talking about things you know nothing about and depriving people of a terrific device to regain their endorphin balance and their life back. Please…

    • Do you still use this treatment. I am at my wits end trying to help my daughter with drug and alchol addiction. She has been through several traditional drug rehab programs without success. Please help

    • Thank you for speaking some sense to these troglodytes. I was thinking the same thing. This is a proven treatment and has been used for years with much success. It’s a shame that these fools procure false information about this treatment through television or what have you, and then regurgitate it on this site like they are a credible source misleading people who would benefit from this.

  4. I like your site. However, I have to object to a comment in this article which puts electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in the same league as this machine. ECT has been subject to numerous controlled trials and is the subject of a Cochrane review. This meta analysis showed that for certain conditions, ECT is effective. For some suicidal people it can be life saving. In the interests of science and people that require ECT could you ammend this in your article?

    • Whether it’s effective or not, it’s abhorrent, quite aside from the matter of individual sovereignty. TMS is as effective as ECT and far less detrimental, with regard to resultant cognitive and memory deficits (Dannon, Dolberg, Grunhaus, Polak & Schreiber, 2003).

  5. I’m getting this NET treatment next month. Skeptical – was told by the manager, with a straight face, that it ‘retunes your brain’. I’ll be coming off 45mls methadone (been on it for 3 yrs) with no medication or taper, only NET box.

    Will report back on what happened – if there was any reduction in withdrawal symptoms.


    • Hey Kat i read you’re comment and was just wondering how you got on. I have posted a comment detailing my experience on the box and was curious to know yours. Where were doing it,Beechwood house?

  6. Hi all, I recently completed the ScotNET programme in a rehab in Glasgow, A brief insight into my background i have been a what i can only describe as a chronic heroin and methadone addict for many years initially i was put onto the methadone program with a view to stabilisation followed by reduction sadly i was never offered a reduction and more often than not offered an increase. I’m sure many of you will relate to this.So, On the 1st of december 2010 i received the phonecall i had been waiting a long time for, it was Bruce Thompson of ScotNET asking me if i was ok to go into Rainbow house on the 3rd of december of course i was. I ingested my last dose of methadone at midday on the 2nd and went from 50mls (which i reduced from 90mls in 2 weeks by way of refusing my methadone for 3 days and getting re-titrated. I was refused any reduction before this and this was my only option. Not reccomended and really no need if you are going onto NET.)To nothing in 24 hours and was put onto the NET device at about 4pm on the 3rd. I have to say i was both petrified and very skeptical about going for the treatment and whether it would actually work. I stood at the large white door at rainbow house and nearly left before i’d actually arrived!! But i gave myself a kick up the backside and just went for it and i can honestly say that it worked for me and the other 3 people i was in with (although they had completed the course 3 weeks prior to my arrival and were taking part in clinical trial ran by university of strathclyde)I was on the old “804” model of NET box,i was supposed to be put onto the newer “901” box but the staff who from what i could see had not a clue on how to operate this one so it was decided the “804” box would “do” and yes it absolutely did everything it said on the tin even after walking about with a flat battery from day 5 to day 7. I experienced minor discomfort but nothing anywhere close to what i had experienced in the past. Yes i had restless legs,really heavy sweating and a severe lack of energy to the point where i couldn’t even climb the stairs without actually needing to rest at the top. But what i could not comprehend and still cannot is that i got at least 2-3 hours of sleep every night from days 1-7 and thereafter it went from 5-7 hours albeit at odd times. Now the thing i noticed and found utterly remarkable is that i experienced virtually no cravings i absolutely put this and the very few withdrawal symptoms down to the NET treatmenat and i know for a fact that i could not have managed without it. In my view its not the physical withdrawals alone that take people out of the doors of rehab before detox is complete but these coupled with the psycholgical cravings are a really tricky combination to deal with. i will be forever thankful to those who helped me. By helped me i mean the people that gave me the contacts-Bruce Thompson and Owen Fielding and maybe at best 2 people that worked in the rehab i stayed in for 12 days the other 12 that worked there showed very little interest and at times made me feel like a burden. To be fair i probably was a bit of a moaning git but i did whatever it took to get me through the day(be selfish). I was on the box for the maximum of 10 days (after this and it needs to be reprogrammed but some of the guys and gals told me they were only on it for 5 days,in my experience unheard of for methadone withdrawal,which can last an incredible number of days and very often has been so unbearable that people have taken their own lives due to the discomfort. So i know of about 7 people who have been through the NET treatment of those 4 have completed it and 1 is on her 8th day that to me is remarkable. And as for the addicts that smuggled drugs into rehab in Kirkubright people who have no experience of this type of environment won’t understand but its very intimidating and frightening going to a new place with new people and testing out a new type of treatment and these people did what they have been doing for probably years to cope with the mundane tasks of everyday life so its no surprise they felt they needed something just to get them through the first 24 hours of a completely alien environment.
    A bit long winded i know. But thanks for reading.

  7. Yes I did it at beechwood, just got out on the 17th February. Came off 45ml meth, and benzos, and 2 weeks later im still clean and no w/ds left! 1st 4-5 days were pretty uncomfortable but nothing like coming off cold turkey, was manageable, and then after that it got better every day.

    Before I wentin I was very skeptical, I thought I would be doing a horrendous rattle; I was really surprised to be able to sleep, sit still and speak to ppl etc. NB I’ve never completely come off meth before, the longest Ive been off it was 3 days and that bad enough, but I’ve known enough ppl be kicked off their script to know its not normal to be feeling only a bit tired after 10 days off it. So theres a definite advantage in how quick it is.

    The guys right, addiction can’t be reduced to biological causes, but to treat it you have to get clean in the first place. I haven’t read any claims that it will ‘cure’ addiction: it’s a detox tool. I had to really want to be clean to go through with it. can see how ppl consider it quackery, what with the language used to describe it, but I went in expecting it not to work, and it did. When I put the box on I hadn’t had my meth for 48 hours and was really rattling, and about half hr later I started to feel not so bad. IMHO its better than tapering or substituting, I’ve done heroin detoxes with subutex and having to go thru withdrawals after the last dose.

    Really glad I went for it, don’t know how I would have got off the meth otherwise. Where did you do it?

  8. Hey Kat, Yeah i just completed 2 weeks at Beechwood. Its actually my second time the first i did a Rainbow House in Glasgow came off 50 mls of methadone stayed clean for 3 months but allowed the old complacency to worm its way in. So yeah this time it was purely heroin which in some ways i found a little harder in terms of sleep deprivation and fatigue but still the NET must eliminate at least 50% of the withdrawals.

    Hope all is well.


  9. hello Kat and NL.

    i wondered if you were still managing to stay of opiates? CAn you confirm that you stopped ALL of your drug use and simply got relief from the NET machine?

    did you use benzo’s also?

    sorry for prying buy this seems like a good tool, but to be honest it is tied up with a lot of religious mumbo jumbo and linked to right wing politics in the UK and altough I would love it to work i find it hard to believe.

    You could both be plants!!

    • Wouldn’t accept the reply I just spent several minutes writing so I lost it. Short version – no I didn’t manage to stay off opiates (or benzos) after coming out of the place I got the NET.

      One of the claims it makes that wasn’t true for me was that it
      reduces/eliminates cravings. I was at the doctor begging for benzos not long after getting out, and back on heroin as soon as I got the opportunity (few days max after my last post). I’m on a methadone script again now since 4-6 weeks after leaving treatment. There was some relief of withdrawal symptoms, but how much was psychosomatic I don’t know.

      • Hi Findo and Kat, well sorry its taken so long to reply. Well firstly Kat thats a real shame and i wish you all the best. wouldn’t you consider giving it another go?
        I’m still clean almost a year after having completed my second NET treatment at beechwood house. I wouldn’t say its been easy and there has been the odd hiccup along the way but i’m still clean and doing well. I can’t sing its praises highly enough. It is however only good to get you over the initial withdrawal symptoms and the hard work really starts then. Seriously.


  10. Hello all,

    I am on 80mgs of Methadone and now I just emailed NET in Scotland (Owen) about their treatment.
    If all goes well I am going to do it in September.
    Its gonna be a hell ride! I am sure of it.
    5 years ago I didnt even make a step close to withdrawals as the last time when I quit cold turkey for 4 months I was in so much pain that I didnt want to do again!
    But here we are now I want to try it again but this time I will have some help from the NET and after the 10 days treatment I want to stay in a clinic or rehab for a month.
    One thing is sure: I will stop using Methadone…but will I have withdrawals?
    I dont know…I think I will have… and I will feel horrible!
    I will report back after the NET treatment.
    Also I still have one more card in my pocket if this NET wouldnt work which is the Ibogaine.
    But that is not a joke…only when there is no other option!
    God bless

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