Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES) is the American FDA’s term for what the rest of the world calls “electrosleep.” Modern electrosleep devices originated in Russia in 1953, and arrived in the U.S. ten years later, in 1963, when they began to be researched with patients complaining of insomnia.
Various uses of small to moderate electrical currents had been researched since the early 1900s in Europe, in an attempt to see exactly what current intensity and pulse rate were required to put a patient to sleep when applied to the head. By that, they meant what was required to knock him out or force him to lose consciousness and maintain the patient in that state for a period of time. Researchers finally gave up on finding a specific type of current that would reliably put most patients to sleep. Unlike those earlier models, modern CES devices are typically pocket sized, run off of a 9 volt battery, and pulse from 100 up to 15,000 times per second. The current intensity usually is at or just below 1 mAmp, but can go up to 4 mAmp with higher pulse rates. Most would just light a flashlight bulb at best, and in the majority of clinical studies, patients have not felt the stimulation at all during treatment.
In the early 1950s Russian medical researchers were working with these very low levels of current, which they applied via two electrodes attached to the closed eyelids and two attached behind the head at the base of the skull. They were attempting to find a psychiatrically useful current, and while the current level was much too low to force a person into a sleep state, they found to their great interest that patients were claiming vastly improved sleep during nights following sessions when these very minor amounts of stimulation passed across the head. They then began studying this effect specifically, and in 1953 finally came out with the Somniatron electrosleep device.
Several similar devices were later manufactured in the U.S. for research purposes, and their clinical use began among inpatient and outpatient psychiatric patients, usually in University Teaching Hospitals. Several other Universities began research with animals in an effort to see if CES really did change how the brain functioned, if it was safe to use, and what the mechanism of action might be.
They found that the current traveled throughout the brain, that it increased production and firing of neurotransmitters in neurons,3 and that when researchers deliberately threw neurotransmitters out of balance in the brain, electrosleep would put them back in balance. Other researchers found that electrosleep would apparently also put back into balance neurotransmitters in human patients whose neurotransmitters had been thrown out of balance by various addicting substances.
By Ray B. Smith, Ph.D