Teens Given Electroshock Treatment Showed Few Bad Effects
March 24, 2000 (Washington) -- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or
"shock therapy," did not cause long-term memory loss or brain damage in
adolescents who underwent the procedure for severe depression, according to a
Shrouded in controversy but believed beneficial by many experts, ECT
involves giving electrical shocks to the brain. It has been found to relieve
severe depression and other mental illnesses, particularly in people who are
not helped by medications. It is usually recommended when people have not
improved after trying at least two different medications.
Physicians today take a number of precautions to ensure the procedure is
performed safely. Patients are usually given a short-acting general anesthetic
and a muscle relaxant before undergoing the treatment, which can be done in an
outpatient center. In the past, patients could be hurt or suffered discomfort
because they were awake during the procedure, which helped to create the poor
image of ECT that many people still have today. And despite popular beliefs,
many studies show people who have ECT do not suffer any long-term memory loss
or other brain impairment.
The new study is one of few, if not the first, to look at the effect of ECT
in teen-agers. The researchers combed through the records of five psychiatry
departments in Paris for patients who were given ECT for a mood disorder before
they were 19 years old. Only 20 such patients were found, and 10 participated
in the study. These patients typically had a total of 10 treatments, which were
performed two or three times a week. At least one year had elapsed since their
last treatment. They were compared with 10 people who had not received ECT but
were matched by sex, age, date and place of hospitalization, and diagnosis.
After being given more than six tests that measure brain functioning and
memory, the researchers concluded that there were no significant differences
between the teens who had ECT and those who didn't -- and that, intellectually,
both had progressed normally for their age. Only one patient made serious
complaints of memory loss and one had minor complaints, indicating memory loss
could be a very rare occurrence. However, many experts believe this could be
unrelated to the ECT, and could possibly be a side effect of anesthesia or a
symptom of depression itself.
David Cohen, MD, the lead researcher, tells WebMD he was not surprised by
the findings because they mimic studies in adults that also found few lingering
effects on the brain after ECT. "We had an idea it should be like in
adults. Adults usually do [retain] their memory. Sometimes they have spotty
memory losses from the period immediately after the ECT." Cohen is chief of
the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Groupe Hospitalier
Pitiè-Salpètrière in Paris.