This month, news outlets worldwide issued breathless reports of a wondrous implant that causes orgasms at the touch of a button. The Orgasmatron, patented by Dr Stuart Meloy, is a small box wired to the spine that can send out waves of pleasure signals whenever the user desires. Dig a little deeper though, and it turns out this technology has a strange and fascinating backstory.
“You’re about the sixth or seventh reporter to call, and I’m wondering what is going on,” a perplexed Meloy told me. His confusion is justifiable. Recent news reports about the device are based exclusively on a 13-year-old story in New Scientist magazine which recently appeared on web powerhouse Reddit, a user-curated repository of interesting things. In the long interim, Meloy has been trying to attract interest and funding for his device, without success.
Meloy is a physician and co-founder of Advanced Interventional Pain Management, a clinic that treats patients suffering from chronic pain. Through this centre, he began working with electronic implants. Attached to nerves in the spine, these devices send out continuous, low pulses to dull chronic pain. But following an operation to install an implant, one patient reported an unusual but not undesirable side effect: the device emitted intensely pleasurable sensations. Meloy realised that he had a powerful technology in his hands, one that he thought might be used to treat men and women suffering sexual dysfunction.
That was over a decade ago, and while Meloy has enjoyed a successful career as a physician, progress on the Orgasmatron has stalled. One stumbling block is the generators used, which cost around $25,000. Meloy is confident that an Orgasmatron could get by on a much smaller power source, sufficient for about an hour’s use per day. “Pulsing constantly for days at a time is not, in my humble opinion, all that necessary to treat sexual dysfunction,” he says. “Some of us have to go to work.” Unfortunately, no suitable alternative exists, and he hasn’t been able to convince any medical manufacturers to design one.
Then there is the issue of who pays for such an implant. “Insurance companies will not pay for anything considered experimental or investigational,” he explains. Although Meloy has fitted hundreds of patients with the devices for pain management (some of whom reported experiencing its famously positive side effect), implanting it specifically to treat sexual dysfunction would be a breach of regulations. Despite the headlines, the device still has not been shown to be an effective treatment for sexual dysfunction, and anyone thinking of faking a painful condition in order to get one risks disappointment. To get approval from the Food and Drug Administration, Meloy would have to carry out a “pivotal trial”, which would cost around $6m. “That’s money I don’t have right now,” he sighs.
Strangely, Meloy isn’t the first person to stumble upon the idea of installing a pleasure button in humans. In the 1950s, another US physician, named Robert Gabriel Heath, was treating psychological disorders at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University in New Orleans. Heath wanted to develop something that was as effective as a lobotomy – still relatively common in that day – but was far less destructive. He achieved this with electrotherapy, using dentistry drills to cut tiny holes in the skulls his patients, through which thin metal probes were pushed, so that pulses of electricity could be administered directly to the brain.
Heath discovered that by activating the septal region, he could induce a rush of pleasure that subdued violent behaviours in by some of his patients. And when given their own pleasure switch, patients were able to manage their mood swings.
One patient clocked up 1,500 doses in a three-hour period, but overall, they showed surprising restraint. (Unlike rats that underwent the same procedure, which self-administered to the point of exhaustion).
Reportedly, Heath’s pleasure button earned him a visit from the CIA, who wanted to know if the technology could be used to inflict pain instead, to interrogate enemies of the state – or even control their minds. Heath threw the man out of his lab. “If I wanted to be a spy, I’d be a spy,” he thundered to the New York Times in an interview. “I wanted to be a doctor and practise medicine”.
Some of Heath’s contemporaries, however, saw the wider implications of bringing human emotions to heel. Jose Manuel Rodriguez Delgado was another researcher who chanced upon the ability to manipulate pleasurable sensations in patient’s brains. He also paired electronic brain stimulators with radio transceivers, effectively putting the subject under remote control. Famously, Delgado was so confident in his tech that he leapt into a bullring opposite one of his experimental animals. As the bull charged at him, Delgado was able to make it stop, bellow and turn it in circles with a flick of his remote (see video, below).
However, the public mood surrounding brain implants soured with the publication of his book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society in 1969, in which Delgado (somewhat naively) downplayed the Orwellian prospects of the devices and encouraged people to embrace the technology. If everyone would consent to implantation to mediate their tempers and traumas, the world would be a better place, he claimed. Two researchers he had briefly worked with raised an outcry the following year when they suggested the devices could be used to quell black citizens rioting in America’s inner cities. Funding dried up, and with the advent of effective drugs to treat mental illnesses, electrical brain stimulation fell into obscurity – and with it, the joy boxes.
Although Meloy is enthusiastic about the potential benefits of his devices, using them as a means of social control is “not something I subscribe to”. He is hopeful though that the renewed interest in the Orgasmatron might give it a second chance at becoming a reality.
If that were to happen, can we expect to see auxiliary pleasure buttons popping up on people’s bodies? Not so fast, says Dr Petra Boynton, a sex researcher at University College London. “I've yet to see a device, medication or product that provides significantly better outcomes than placebo for sexual problems,” she says. “I’m concerned with the idea of offering a surgical intervention for cases that most probably would've done better with therapy, or information about sexual problems, options for pleasure, and how our bodies work.”
So if the Orgasmatron does ever reach the market, consider that you already have a much more powerful electric joy box sitting on your shoulders. As for those who do decide to go the technological route, just make sure you know who is pushing your buttons.
If you would like to comment on this, or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook or Google+ page, or message us on Twitter.