Saturday, January 23, 2010


An illustration by Italian physician, anatomist, and inventor Guido of Vigevano (c. 1280-1349) depicting his idealized impression of the ancient technique of trepanation.

I have been meaning to do a post about trepanation and the news article I saw this morning about removing part of the skull to facilitate better brain scans is my catalyst. Trepanation (also known as trephination) is the intentional perforation of the skull, by gouging, cutting, scraping, or drilling a hole (caution). It is the oldest known surgery, dating back 10,000 years to the Stone Age. The ancient peoples of what are now Peru and Bolivia were particularly good at it - and did it in some cases to relieve the pressure of depressed fractures received in battle and in other cases ostensibly to release the malicious spirit causing a particular illness. An hour-long documentary about the procedure is available and the website is worth checking out, even though the link to the trailer seems misdirected.

I first heard of this surgery in the context of archaeology and paleopathology. I learned that physical anthroplogists can easily tell from an ancient trepanned skull whether the patient survived by examining the bone growth at the margins of the hole. It was shortly thereafter, due to my interest in weird news, that I found out about modern trepanning and the surprising number of do-it-yourselfers. The anecdotal evidence is that the self-surgery expands the consciousness in increasing the blood flow and cures ailments like depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. The positive effects have been experienced by Robert Lund of Brooklyn, who was trepanned involuntarily in the hospital after a brutal mugging. The International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG) has led the movement to study the benefits of trepanation and to make it available as a voluntary procedure by the medical establishment once they are able to document the improved cerebral circulation.

Trepanation may yet enter mainstream medicine. While it has been used for years to relieve epidural and subdural haematoma, it is now being studied as a possible treatment for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

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