Ugo Cerletti
A Brief Biography


Ugo Cerletti was born in Conegliano, in the region of Veneto, Italy, on September 26th, 1877. He studied Medicine at Rome and Turin, later specializing in neurology and neuropsychiatry. He studied with the most eminent neurologists of his time, first in Paris, France, with Pierre Marie and Dupré, then in Munich, Germany, with Emil Kraepelin (the "father" of modern scientific psychiatry) ) and Alois Alzheimer (the discoverer of senile dementia, which today bears his name); and in Heidelberg, with Franz Nissl (a neuropathologist)

After his studies, he was appointed head of the Neurobiological Institute, at the Mental Institute of Milan. In 1924 he was given a lecturing post in Neuropsychiatry in Bari; then, in 1928, he took over the post of Prof. Enrico Morselli, at the University of Genoa. Finally, in 1935, he became the Chair of the Department of Mental and Neurological Diseases at the University of Rome, where he developed electroconvulsive shock for the treatment of several kinds of mental disorder, a discovery which made him world-famous.

Cerletti came to the first use of electroshock for therapeutic purposes in human beings by way of his experiments with animals on the neuropathological consequences of repeated epilepsy attacks. In Genoa, and later in Rome, he used a electroshock apparatus to provoke repeatable, reliable epileptic fits in dogs and other animals. The idea to use ECT in humans came first to him by watching pigs being anesthetised with electroshock before being butchered, in Rome. Furthermore, since 1935, cardiazol, an epileptogenic drug, and insulin, a hormone, were in wide use in many countries to treat schizophrenics, with great success. This approach was based on Nobel winner Julius Wagner von Jauregg's research on the use of malaria-induced convulsions to treat some nervous and mental disorders, as well as on Ladislas Joseph von Meduna's theory that schizophrenia and epilepsy were antagonistic, which eventually led, in the same period, to institute insulin-coma therapy in psychiatry, by Manfred Sakel, in 1933.

Cerletti first used ECT in a human patient, a diagnosed schizophrenic with dellusions, hallucinations and confusion, in April 1938, in collaboration with Lucio Bini. A series of electroshocks were able to return the patient to a normal state of mind. Thereafter, in the suceeding years, Cerletti and his coworkers experimented with thousands of electroshocks in hundreds of animals and patients, and were able to determine its usefulness and safety in clinical practice, with several indications, such as in acute schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness, major depression episodes, etc. His work was very influential, and ECT quickly spread out as a therapeutic procedure all over the world.

In his long activity as a psychiatrist and neurologist, Cerletti published 113 original papers, about the pathology of senile plaques in Alzheimer's disease, on the structure of neuroglia, the blood-brain barrier, neurosyphillis, etc. In 1950, he received a honorary degree by the Sorbonne (University of Paris), in addition to a long list of awards and degrees.

Cerletti died in Rome, on July 25th, 1963.


To Know More


From: The History of Shock Therapy in Psychiatry

By: Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD

Source: Brain & Mind Magazine, August/September 1997