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Evaluation of cumulative cognitive deficits from electroconvulsive therapy

Kirov, George G. ORCID:, Owen, Laura, Ballard, Hazel, Leighton, Adele, Hannigan, Kara, Llewellyn, Danielle, Escott-Price, Valentina ORCID: and Atkins, Maria 2016. Evaluation of cumulative cognitive deficits from electroconvulsive therapy. British Journal of Psychiatry 208 (3) , pp. 266-270. 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.158261

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Background Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the most effective acute treatment for severe depression, but widely held concerns about memory problems may limit its use. Aims To find out whether repeated or maintenance courses of ECT cause cumulative cognitive deterioration. Method Analysis of the results of 10 years of cognitive performance data collection from patients who have received ECT. The 199 patients had a total of 498 assessments, undertaken after a mean of 15.3 ECT sessions (range 0–186). A linear mixed-effect regression model was used, testing whether an increasing number of ECT sessions leads to deterioration in performance. Results The total number of previous ECT sessions had no effect on cognitive performance. The major factors affecting performance were age, followed by the severity of depression at the time of testing and the number of days since the last ECT session. Conclusions Repeated courses of ECT do not lead to cumulative cognitive deficits. This message is reassuring for patients, carers and prescribers who are concerned about memory problems and confusion during ECT. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the most effective acute treatment for severe depression,1 with reported remission rates above 50%.2,3 Although some reports demonstrate even higher remission rates (such as 75% in patients with psychotic depression4), these could be below 50% for treatment-resistant depression or in community settings.5,6 ECT is often portrayed in mainstream media as a barbaric treatment7 and its cognitive side-effects as profound and debilitating, leading to public, patient and carer concerns. ECT does cause retrograde amnesia and acute disorientation immediately following a treatment,8 however, research has suggested that this is only a short-lived side-effect. A meta-analysis by Semkovska & McLoughlin9 analysed the cognitive tests of 2981 patients from 84 studies, performed before and after single courses of ECT, and found that a decline in cognitive performance was limited to the first 3 days following a treatment. Patients showed no cognitive deterioration when tested 2 or more weeks after their last ECT session. This does not apply to retrograde amnesia, which was not part of this analysis, and it cannot be extended to cognitive functions that were not tested. Much less is known about the side-effects of long-term ECT, including maintenance ECT. A major concern of patients and some health professionals is that it could lead to progressive cognitive deficits, especially if given for prolonged periods of time. Small studies and case reports have addressed this question and have found no evidence to support this concern (see Discussion). Over the past 10 years we performed prospective cognitive tests on 199 patients, of whom 96 had >12 ECTsessions during their lifetime (the usual maximum duration of a single ECT course). We wanted to find out whether there was evidence that their cognitive performance deteriorated with the increasing number of ECT sessions.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Publication
Status: Published
Schools: Medicine
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
ISSN: 0007-1250
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 25 May 2018
Date of Acceptance: 13 March 2015
Last Modified: 04 May 2023 20:43

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