A report by psychologists and mental health researchers at the University of East London has recommended the immediate suspension of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as a treatment for depression. Dr John Read, who led the study group, says that any benefits conferred by ECT are outweighed by the high risk of brain damage including permanent memory loss. Dr Read is likewise concerned at the poor quality of previous research justifying the use of ECT going back several decades.
ECT is a form of therapy for conditions such as depression, mania, and schizophrenia which uses electric currents passed directly through the patient's brain to induce a seizure. The treatment dates to the late 1930s and remains in use through to the present day, although its exact mechanism of action remains unknown. Over 1,000 patients still receive ECT on the NHS each year.
There are long-standing concerns about the side-effects of ECT including memory loss and in some rare cases permanent serious brain damage and even death. A 2018 American class action in this respect was decided in the claimants' favour due to manufacturers of ECT equipment failing to warn of the potential negative effects of the treatment.
Dr Read's study acknowledges the apparent benefits of ECT but suggests that much of this is attributable to the placebo effect rather than any objective physiological mechanism of action. In response to Dr Read's study however the Royal College of Psychiatrists has released a statement calling ECT a "life-saving treatment" and recommending its ongoing use in severe cases that have failed to respond to other forms of therapy. It notes that most people who undergo ECT report an improvement in their condition, while noting that like any treatment it comes with side-effects of differing severity.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) continues to recommend the use of ECT in otherwise intractable cases but says that it will be reviewing its guidelines (last updated in 2014) in light of the recent study.
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