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Does electroconvulsive therapy cause brain damage?

  • Richard D. Weiner (a1)

Abstract

Although the use of ECT has declined dramatically from its inception, this decrease has recently shown signs of leveling out because of ECT's powerful therapeutic effect in severely ill depressed individuals who either do not respond to pharmacologic alternatives or are too ill to tolerate a relatively lengthy drug trial. Notwithstanding its therapeutic benefits, ECT has also remained a controversial treatment modality, particularly in the eye of the public. Given the unsavory qualities associated with the word “electroconvulsive,” claims of possible, probable, or even certain brain damage with ECT have easily found listeners. A careful, nonselective assessment of data covering the areas of pathology, radiology, electrophysiology, biochemistry, and neuropsychology leads both to certain conclusions and to certain unanswered questions. ECT is not the devastating purveyor of wholesale brain damage that some of its detractors claim. For the typical individual receiving ECT, no detectable correlates of irreversible brain damage appear to occur. Still, there remains the possibility that either subtle, objectively undetectable persistent deficits, particularly in the area of autobiographic memory function, occur, or that a rarely occurring syndrome of more pervasive persistent deficits related to ECT use may be present. Clearly, more research directed toward answering these questions needs to be carried out so that the role of ECT can be more rigorously defined. While such research is pending, however, we cannot expect that the conditions that predispose to clinical referrals for ECT will disappear. Given the misery, anguish, and risk of death by suicide, starvation, or debilitation associated with severe depressive illness, for example, it still appears that ECT, at least for the present, must continue to be available.

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References

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