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Teens Given Electroshock Treatment Showed Few Bad Effects

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WebMD Health News

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 new study.

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.

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