Is Niven-style "wireheading" even possible?

So the other day I was reading yet another article about new treatments for depression using nerve stimulators or transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain, and of course every time I read an article like that it brings up thoughts of the tasp and wireheads from Larry Niven’s stories, where people in the future skip over drug addiction and whatnot and just have a wire implanted in the pleasure center of their brain and then, in most cases, just sit around enjoying themselves until they starve or die or bedsores or something along those lines.

But I was thinking about it, and would something like that really be possible, even in theory? I know rats and a few people have been implanted with stimulators, but if you were constantly trickling current into your brain to keep the pleasure system firing, would the neurons rapidly become exhausted (from being forced to fire all the time) and die? Or are they capable of firing over and over without being damaged?

According to the freshman-level psychology class I took in college, the neurons would function for a long time. When they placed the stimulus-lever on one end of the rat’s cage, and the food dish on the other end of the cage, the rat would keep stimulating itself until it starved to death.

But that was intermittent stimulation, wasn’t it? I was under the impression that “wireheading” involved a continual stimulation of the pleasure system so you were basically feeling like you were having an orgasm all the time. Of course, I’m not sure how much stimulation it takes to keep that sensation going continually; maybe it only takes one electrical pulse every few seconds or something. Or maybe the rats just experienced brief pulses of pleasure as long as the electrical current was flowing, and thus pushed as fast as they could to keep it going as much as they could.

I suppose it would be a lot easier to ask the people it has been tried on what it feels like than to try to figure out what rats are feeling. I’ve read that the few depressed patients this procedure was tried on reported that it felt good, but was nothing they’d starve to death over. But I don’t know if that’s true or not.

In any case, if it IS dangerous to your neurons, it would really suck to destroy your pleasure system and be forced to live the rest of your life with complete anhedonia. I think I read a story by Greg Egan about something like that once.

These things have been going on for years. Dr. Jose Delgado was famous for this. See this NYT article from 1965:

http://www.wanttoknow.info/650517nytimes

More on Delgado:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/José_Manuel_Rodriguez_Delgado

Thanks Cal. I remember reading about the bull and the other “remote-controlled” animals. I’ll read through these articles. But what I’m really interested in is the humans it has been tested on, and what precisely has been done to them, and what they report the effects as. And, of course, the theoretical results of long-term exposure.