Photo: Today Show

Electroconvulsive Therapy: A Shocking Recovery

Why This Taboo Treatment Is Still Used Today

In a Nutshell

Martin Werner

March 19th, 2018


Electroshock therapy began as a standard treatment for depression in the mid-20th century. The therapy involves running a short electrical current through the brain that induces a brief seizure. During early use, it could often result in broken bones and memory loss, despite its relative effectiveness in treating depression (⅔ of patients’ depression alleviated compared to only ⅖ with drugs). Public awareness of these worrisome side effects caused a swift decline in its use, and by the end of the 20th century, it was nearly eradicated. But due to its efficacy, the treatment was never fully lost.

 

Today, it is safe to assume that most have heard the phrase “electroshock therapy,” as well as that when heard, it brings a negative connotation: unnecessary, inhumane, torturous, etc. These impressions are now largely unfounded and a result of a history of negative public perception. A more in-depth look at what is now referred to as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) reveals a much more two-sided issue—and in fact, the therapy is now on a quiet comeback within the medical world.

 

ECT works because depression is thought to be a result of the brain’s regular electrical signals misfiring. The short electrical current used in therapy could act like a reset button. Because the treatment was so successful, even in its prime, some doctors continued to use the treatment despite the backlash. To ease the side effects and isolate ECT's healing power, these doctors added anesthesia and muscle relaxants to their treatment and began targeting only one hemisphere of the brain. The relaxants and anesthesia work to avoid painful muscle convulsions and broken bones, and targeting one half of the brain helps prevent significant memory loss.

 

The treatment continues to be used and tested today with side effects of headaches and some short-term memory loss. It is used as a last resort when other treatments see no results in patients—which is not necessarily rare with the unpredictability of antidepressants. Its reduced side effects and surprising efficacy mean its use just might increase even more in the future.

 

In fact, the treatment is again becoming popular, and it use has expanded beyond treatment of just depression. ECT is now used to treat cases of severe mania, catatonia, as well as agitation and aggression in people with dementia. And in the future, its use will surely expand. Researchers are now investigating the potential use of ECT to treat other brain disorders such as advanced Parkinson’s disease, PTSD, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis. The treatment is becoming an essential alternative in treating severe mental health conditions. Its future is not certain, but ECT is surely not going away anytime soon.