A Hole in the Head

Trepanation (sometimes known as trepanning, trephination or trephining) has been practiced historically throughout many cultures for different mystical or mythological reasons. Trepanation basically involves drilling, or otherwise making, a hole or gap in the skull.

One of the historical reasons behind trepanation, or trepanning, in Western countries (like the United Kingdom) was the idea that it released demons from the minds of the insane. This idea led to the phrase, "I need that like I need a hole in the head." This association with madness led to a stigma around trepanation that contributed to the end of the practice in the UK.

Reasons for the practice of trepanation in other cultures included the search for spiritual enlightenment. Some Yogis became trepanned and it was thought that trepanning created a literal third eye. The full reasons behind historical trepanation in many cultures are not known as the trepanned skull-bones that have been found are extremely old. Consequently, there is no way of knowing why the practice was carried out.

Trepanation is still practiced today in some African cultures to treat medical problems such as persistent bad headaches, for example. These operations are carried out with little or no anesthetization and often using improvised tools, such as the edges of old tin cans. The trepanation site is usually covered post-op with some hog fat and large tree leaves while it heals. Amazingly, around 96% of the patients survive trepanation carried out under such basic conditions.

While trepanation in Western cultures is largely a thing of the past, there has been a slight resurgence of interest in the practice during the last few decades. In the late 1960s Bart Huges, who lived in Amsterdam and had trained to be a doctor (although he failed to receive the qualification due to his advocation of the use of marijuana), trepanned himself and established a small bunch of followers who also trepanned themselves. Peter Halvorson (from the United States), as well as Amanda Fielding (now Lady Amanda Neidpath) and Joey Mellon (both from the United Kingdom), are some of the more well-known modern advocates of trepanation. They were friends of Huges and all trepanned themselves shortly after he did.

Huges reasoned that, while blood pulsates through every other organ in the body, due to the sealed cranial cavity, it fails to do so in the brain. By making a hole in the skull-bone the idea is that the more elastic surface created at the trepanation site would allow pulsation of the blood inside the cranial cavity. This improved blood pulsation, Huges thought, would increase the volume of blood in the brain in relation to the volume of cerebrospinal fluid, thereby improving the functioning of the brain.

In 2000 Heather Perry (from the United Kingdom) was trepanned under the supervision of Peter Halvorson. Halvorson was subsequently charged with practicing medicine without a license, however. Halvorson then went on to persuade doctors from Mexico to carry out the operation. Several people were electively trepanned at the Mexican medical establishment Halvorson had links with. All claimed to be satisfied with the results.

In 2005 the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), run by Halvorson, persuaded a medical professor who specializes in cerebral circulation to examine changes in the blood flow of the brain in patients requiring minor brain surgery pre- and post-trepanation. The openings in the skull that were necessary for surgery were not sealed by plastic surgery for several months. The blood flow in the patients' brains was monitored and it was found that it did, in fact, increase during this time. It returned to normal again once the cavity was surgically resealed.

ITAG's efforts have resulted in several scientific publications in medical journals. ITAG has also been awarded certificates of accomplishment for its contribution to this research.  

Halvorson continues in his quest to make trepanation a freely available voluntary operation. Amanda Neidpath and Joey Mellon also carry on their advocation of trepanation as a useful way of improving the functioning of the brain. Neidpath lectures on the subject of trepanation. She and Halvorson have both gained some interest in the subject from small sections of the medical establishment.

While is unlikely that trepanation will ever become as popular a practice as it once was, any further experimental results will make interesting reading. It is strange that the same procedure has been carried out across so many different cultures throughout the ages (and for a variety of reasons). It would be fascinating to know conclusively if there is a physiological reason behind why people have seemed to find it beneficial. However, a non-essential medical procedure such as this is unlikely to be given much attention by an already over-burdened medical establishment.

Illustration of Trepanation (French, 18th Century)
Credit: wikipedia.org