Can a stint in the 'fever machine' treat depression?

Madison, Wis. — The obsession was born over Chinese food with a Tibetan monk.

Dr. Charles Raison was working as an emergency room psychiatrist in Los Angeles, where he’d fallen in with a monk-turned-psychologist. Every Monday, they would have dinner at Panda Inn and talk Tibet.

One night, Raison’s companion told him about a meditation practice called “tummo,” a kind of fast track to enlightenment. Using only breathing and visualization techniques, he said, monks raised their body temperatures to feverish levels — so high that their body heat could steam dry sheets dipped in an icy Himalayan lake.

Raison was entranced. At that moment, he decided he would study how body temperature connected to feelings of bliss. That conversation would lead to decades of research — and a controversial idea for treating depression by putting patients inside a machine that induces fever. In May, his team published results of their first small clinical trial, which found that the machine eased some patients’ symptoms, at least by certain metrics.

Outside scientists aren’t convinced. But Raison believes the fever machine could help patients with intractable depression. He credits the monks for that first moment of inspiration.

“This was the craziest thing I ever did,” Raison said. “I had no funding. I had no research career. I just wanted to do this.”

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