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How Does ECT Work in the Brain?

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

How Does ECT Work in the Brain?Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is an uncommon treatment for severe, chronic depression. It is used sparingly, partially because our understanding of why and how it works is still in the dark ages. It also doesn’t help that it can cause memory loss in many patients who undergo it (usually confined to just memory around ECT treatments, but occasionally also around older, longer-term memories as well), as well as increasing attention and concentration problems in a minority of people who try ECT.

However, a new study sheds light on the possible mechanism for how electroconvulsive therapy works, based upon one theory of how depression works in the brain.

The theory goes like this — depression isn’t caused by too little brain activity. It’s actually caused by too much brain activity, an overactive brain that has accidentally “hot-wired” multiple brain networks together. (How and why this hot-wiring occurs is still a mystery.)

So how can ECT undo this hot-wiring?

8 Comments to
How Does ECT Work in the Brain?

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  1. hi ect not this barbaric treatment again why would you cause a fit in a person in a bid to cure them of depression ,research has also shown that one person who got 100sessions of ect and had no success ans the side effects this person will carry for the rest of her life ,ect is a sham and shame on those who recommend this barbaric treatment ,doctors used to “bleed ” people to cure them you might as well hit someone on the head with a hammer as give them ect ,and about as useful

  2. Hi there. I did ect recently and it does work! I did it just 4 times. I was given anesthesia and muscle relax . I would highly reccomened this treatment to everyone if i got the chance. Of couse there are risks involve but living withdepression is like not living at all.. thanks for thegreat article!

  3. Today I had my 12th treatment of ECT and I must say that I am happier now than I have ever been in my life. I have lived with depression since I was young and have spent many years in counseling, therapy and have tried 3 different types of anti depressants. ECT has been life saving and life changing for me. Yes, it comes with side effects and have memory issues but I will take that any day over being suicidal and hating life. I have meet many other people who it has worked for and a few who it hasn’t, those it has worked for can get out of bed in the morning as a result and I think that is wonderful! I am very greatfull that this sort of treatment is available.

  4. Was wondering if ect really works, my wife has suffered with bi- polar , borderline personality, ocd. Medication doesnt work, has been a hard seven years, we are out of options.any advice would be appreciated.

    • John,
      I have each of the medical conditions you mentioned
      And then some… Two things have helped me;
      #1) a supportive husband!
      #2) ECT
      I have tried almost every alternative, but ECT has
      Been the only consistent effective treatment for me.
      I highly recommend looking into it.
      Please, no matter what stand by your wife!

  5. I had ect ten years ago, some loss of memory around the immediate time that I had it, but who wants to remember that anyway ? I was not eating, it saved my life. You get a shot of caffiene in your iv, that I do remember. The doc would ask for the caffiene….it lowers the seizure threshhold. It changed my propiorecption in my hands for awhile, I would throw baseballs into the ground while playing catch with my high school pitcher son, but it all got better over time with no physical therapy or anything. If you have not had it, how can you be critical ? Medicine is not perfect, I think what got me to the point of needing ect, was them giving me an SSRI that made me extremely agitated and anxious, yes, it does happend. Too much serotonin can do that. I now take Remeron, but tried Wellbutrin before like two years ago and it was good for two days, very focused, got all kinds of work done, and then the anxiety came and no longer slept, I would have ended up hospitalized if I had not stopped taking it. When you are in a hospital you are at your docs mercy, and you do not kn ow if it is the drugs messing you up or some natural chemical inbalance, you need to try and reason with them for sure. Scary
    Kevin

  6. ECT looks interesting. Especially if you’re a physician who loves gadgets. It seems a bit harsh to use this when the success rate is so low and the risks so high.
    However I guess is does work for some people, and it sure is quicker to do than a whole mental and physical health and lifestyle overhaul.

  7. I am the mother of a 30 year old who has had ECT treatment for over a year. Once a month ECT is given. I am sooooo terrified that it’s going to kill my child. Am I over reacting?

    Scared to death Mom

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