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Electroconvulsive treatment

Note: this article needs to be merged with electroconvulsive therapy

First-line treatment for most people with clinical depression today consists of antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, or both in combination (Potter et al., 1991; Depression Guideline Panel, 1993). In situations where these options are not effective or too slow (for example, in a person with delusional depression and intense, unremitting suicidality) electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be considered.

History of ECT

ECT, sometimes referred to as electroshock or shock treatment, was developed in the 1930s based on the mistaken belief that epilepsy (seizure disorder) and schizophrenia could not exist at the same time in an individual. Accumulated clinical experience—later confirmed in controlled clinical trials, which included the use of simulated or "sham" ECT as a control (Janicak et al., 1985)—determined ECT to be highly effective against severe depression, some acute psychotic states, and mania (Small et al., 1988). No controlled study has shown any other treatment to have superior efficacy to ECT in the treatment of depression (Janicak et al., 1985; Rudorfer et al., 1997). ECT has not been demonstrated to be effective in dysthymia, substance abuse, or anxiety or personality disorders. The foregoing conclusions, and many of those discussed below, are the products of review of extensive research conducted over several decades (Depression Guideline Panel, 1993; Rudorfer et al., 1997) as well as by an independent panel of scientists, practitioners, and consumers (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985).

ECT consists of a series of brief generalized seizures induced by passing an electric current through the brain by means of two electrodes placed on the scalp. A typical course of ECT entails 6 to 12 treatments, administered at a rate of three times per week, on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. The exact mechanisms by which ECT exerts its therapeutic effect are not yet known. The production of an adequate, generalized seizure using the proper amount of electrical stimulation at each treatment session is required for therapeutic efficacy (Sackheim et al., 1993).

With the development of effective medications for the treatment of major mental disorders a half-century ago, the need for ECT lessened but did not disappear. Prior to that time, ECT often had been administered for a variety of conditions for which it is not effective, and administered without anesthesia or neuromuscular blockade. The result was grand mal seizures that could produce injuries and even fractures.

Present-day use of ECT

Despite the availability of a range of effective antidepressant medications and psychotherapies, as discussed above, ECT continues to be used (Rosenbach et al., 1997), occupying a narrower but important niche. It is generally reserved for the special circumstances where the usual first-line treatments are ineffective or cannot be taken, or where ECT is known to be particularly beneficial, such as depression or mania accompanied by psychosis or catatonia (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985; Depression Guideline Panel, 1993; Potter & Rudorfer, 1993). Examples of specific indications include depression unresponsive to multiple medication trials, or accompanied by a physical illness or pregnancy, which renders the use of a usually preferred antidepressant dangerous to the patient or to a developing fetus. Under such circumstances, carefully weighing risks and benefits, ECT may be the safest treatment option for severe depression. It should be administered under controlled conditions, with appropriate personnel (Rudorfer et al., 1997).

Although the average 60 to 70 percent response rate seen with ECT is comparable to that obtained with pharmacotherapy, there is evidence that the antidepressant effect of ECT occurs faster than that seen with medication, encouraging the use of ECT where depression is accompanied by potentially uncontrollable suicidal ideas and actions (Rudorfer et al., 1997). However, ECT does not exert a long-term protection against suicide. Indeed, it is now recognized that a single course of ECT should be regarded as a short-term treatment for an acute episode of illness. To sustain the response to ECT, continuation treatment, often in the form of antidepressant and/or mood stabilizer medication, must be instituted (Sackeim, 1994). Individuals who repeatedly relapse following ECT despite continuation medication may be candidates for maintenance ECT, delivered on an outpatient basis at a rate of one treatment weekly to as infrequently as monthly (Sackeim, 1994; Rudorfer et al., 1997).

The major risks of ECT are those of brief general anesthesia, which was introduced along with muscle relaxation and oxygenation to protect against injury and to reduce patient anxiety. There are virtually no absolute health contraindications precluding its use where warranted (Potter & Rudorfer, 1993; Rudorfer et al., 1997).

The most common adverse effects of this treatment are confusion and memory loss for events surrounding the period of ECT treatment. The confusion and disorientation seen upon awakening after ECT typically clear within an hour. More persistent memory problems are variable. Most typical with standard, bilateral electrode placement (one electrode on each side of the head) has been a pattern of loss of memories for the time of the ECT series and extending back an average of 6 months, combined with impairment with learning new information, which continues for perhaps 2 months following ECT (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985). Well-designed neuropsychological studies have consistently shown that by several months after completion of ECT, the ability to learn and remember are normal (Calev, 1994). Although most patients return to full functioning following successful ECT, the degree of post-treatment memory impairment and resulting impact on functioning are highly variable across individuals (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985; CMHS, 1998). While clearly the exception rather than the rule, no reliable data on the incidence of severe post-ECT memory impairment are available. Fears that ECT causes gross structural brain pathology have not been supported by decades of methodologically sound research in both humans and animals (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985; Devanand et al., 1994; Weiner & Krystal, 1994; Greenberg, 1997; CMHS, 1998). The decision to use ECT must be evaluated for each individual, weighing the potential benefits and known risks of all available and appropriate treatments in the context of informed consent (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985).

Modern ECT techniques

Advances in treatment technique over the past generation have enabled a reduction of adverse cognitive effects of ECT (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985; Rudorfer et al., 1997). Nearly all ECT devices deliver a lower current, brief-pulse electrical stimulation, rather than the original sine wave output; with a brief pulse electrical wave, a therapeutic seizure may be induced with as little as one-third the electrical power as with the older method, thereby reducing the potential for confusion and memory disturbance (Andrade et al., 1998). Placement of both stimulus electrodes on one side of the head ("unilateral" ECT), over the nondominant (generally right) cerebral hemisphere, results in delivery of the initial electrical stimulation away from the primary learning and memory centers.

According to several controlled trials, unilateral ECT is associated with virtually no detectable, persistent memory loss (Horne et al., 1985; NIH Consensus Conference, 1985; Rudorfer et al., 1997). However, most clinicians find unilateral ECT less potent and more slowly acting an intervention than conventional bilateral ECT, particularly in the most severe cases of depression or in mania. One approach that is sometimes used is to begin a trial of ECT with unilateral electrode placement and switch to bilateral treatment after about six treatments if there has been no response. Research has demonstrated that the relationship of electrical dose to clinical response differs depending on electrode placement; for bilateral ECT, as long as an adequate seizure is obtained, any additional dosage will merely add to the cognitive toxicity, whereas for unilateral electrode placement, a therapeutic effect will not be achieved unless the electrical stimulus is more than minimally above the seizure threshold (Sackeim et al., 1993). Even a moderately high electrical dosage in unilateral ECT still has fewer cognitive adverse effects than bilateral ECT. On the other hand, high-dose bilateral ECT may be unnecessarily risky and may be a preventable cause of severe memory impairment. Some types of medication, such as lithium, also add to confusion and cognitive impairment when given during a course of ECT and are best avoided. Medications that raise the seizure threshold and make it harder to obtain a therapeutic effect from ECT, including anticonvulsants and some minor tranquilizers, may also need to be tapered or discontinued.

Informed consent is an integral part of the ECT process (NIH & NIMH Consensus Conference, 1985). The potential benefits and risks of this treatment, and of available alternative interventions, should be carefully reviewed and discussed with patients and, where appropriate, family or friends. Prospective candidates for ECT should be informed, for example, that its benefits are short-lived without active continuation treatment, and that there may be some risk of permanent severe memory loss after ECT. In most cases of depression, the benefit-to-risk ratio will favor the use of medication and/or psychotherapy as the preferred course of action (Depression Guideline Panel, 1993). Where medication has not succeeded, or is fraught with unusual risk, or where the potential benefits of ECT are great, such as in delusional depression, the balance of potential benefits to risks may tilt in favor of ECT. Active discussion with the treatment team, supplemented by the growing amount of printed and videotaped information packages for consumers, is necessary in the decisionmaking process, both prior to and throughout a course of ECT. Consent may be revoked at any time during a series of ECT sessions.

Although many people have fears related to stories of forced ECT in the past, the use of this modality on an involuntary basis today is uncommon. Involuntary ECT may not be initiated by a physician or family member without a judicial proceeding. In every state, the administration of ECT on an involuntary basis requires such a judicial proceeding at which patients may be represented by legal counsel. As a rule, such petitions are granted only where the prompt institution of ECT is regarded as potentially lifesaving, as in the case of a person who is in grave danger because of lack of food or fluid intake caused by catatonia. Recent epidemiological surveys show that the modern use of ECT is generally limited to evidence-based indications (Hermann et al., 1999). Indeed, concern has been raised that in some settings, particularly in the public sector and outside major metropolitan areas, ECT may be underutilized due to the wide variability in the availability of this treatment across the country (Hermann et al., 1995). Consequently, minority patients tend to be underrepresented among those receiving ECT (Rudorfer et al., 1997).

On balance, the evidence supports the conclusion that modern ECT is among those treatments effective for the treatment of select severe mental disorders, when used in accord with current standards of care, including appropriate informed consent.

Continuation phase therapy

Successful acute phase antidepressant pharmacotherapy or ECT should almost always be followed by at least 6 months of continued treatment (Prien & Kupfer, 1986; Depression Guideline Panel, 1993; Rudorfer et al., 1997). During this phase, known as the continuation phase, most patients are seen biweekly or monthly. The primary goal of continuation pharmacotherapy is to prevent relapse (i.e., an exacerbation of symptoms sufficient to meet syndromal criteria). Continuation pharmacotherapy reduces the risk of relapse from 40-60 percent to 10-20 percent (Prien & Kupfer, 1986; Thase, 1993). Relapse despite continuation pharmacotherapy might suggest either nonadherence (Myers & Branthwaithe, 1992) or loss of a placebo response (Quitkin et al., 1993a).

A second goal of continuation pharmacotherapy is consolidation of a response into a complete remission and subsequent recovery (i.e., 6 months of sustained remission). A remission is defined as a complete resolution of affective symptoms to a level similar to healthy people (Frank et al., 1991a). As residual symptoms are associated with increased relapse risk (Keller et al., 1992; Thase et al., 1992), recovery should be achieved before withdrawing antidepressant pharmacotherapy.

Many psychotherapists similarly taper a successful course of treatment by scheduling several sessions (every other week or monthly) prior to termination. There is some evidence, albeit weak, that relapse is less common following successful treatment with one type of psychotherapy—cognitive-behavioral therapy—than with antidepressants (Kovacs et al., 1981; Blackburn et al., 1986; Simons et al., 1986; Evans et al., 1992). If confirmed, this advantage may offset the greater short-term costs of psychotherapy.

External links

The original version of this article was adapted from the public domain document Mental Health: a report of the Surgeon General, online at Please edit and revise as necessary.