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Shock Therapy

Shock therapy or Electro Convulsive Therapy has been around since the early 20th century. It is a form of convulsive therapy. The earliest recorded use of convulsive therapy dates back to the 16th century. There has been much controversy over this therapy which little is known as far as how it affects the brain. However, it is argued that many people with severe cases of chronic depression have benefitted from it. Some professionals would argue though that the apathy and euphoria experienced by patients is a result of the brain damage that they are suffering and that doctors simply state that it works because of this agreeable nature of their patients (many of whom were getting treatment for behavioral issues).


Using seizures to treat psychiatric disorders has been dated as early as the 1500s. In 1934 convulsive therapy was created by Ladislas J. Meduna, an Hungarian neuropsychiatrist. It was an Italian named Ugo Cerletti who would begin using electricity to shock patients into having seizures. His first experiment was in 1937. Ugo and his partner, Lucio Bini, were inspired after watching pigs get anesthetized with electricity before they were butchered. Cerletti and Bini found that after only a few treatments there was a significant improvement in the patients. One side effect that turned out to be a plus for Cerletti and Bini was that patients could not remember the therapy and so had no reservations about getting the next one. Cerletti and Bini were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize but did not receive it. Use of Eletro Convulsive Therapy spread through Europe and the United States throughout the 40s and 50s. During this time ECT was given without modifications. That is to say patients were not given muscle relaxants or anesthesia. Another issue was that electrodes were not being hooked up unilaterally so there were some severe side effects. By the time all of these issues were fixed there was a negative backlash against ECT because of the negative image it was given in popular culture. Despite its effectiveness in treating severe cases of clinical depression and the constant improvements made to it to reduce side effects,  it never regained the popularity it once had.


The use of the Electro Convulsive Therapy is to make the patient lose consciousness and have convulsions that last for at least 15 minutes. Professionals are unsure as to what it is that ECT is really doing. Some believe it causes a chemical change in the brain and some feel that it gives the brain a “jump start”. There is disagreement as to whether ECT should be used as first-line treatment or be reserved for those who have not had luck with any other treatment. One of the critical conditions though, that was established in the late 70s, was that the patient sign a consent form. ECT is used for those suffering from clinical depression. It originally was used for epilepsy and schizophrenia, as well as other conditions (it was even used to “cure” homosexuality).

Female doctor looking at brain scans


There are differing results as to the effectiveness of Electro Convulsive Therapy. There are reports that say it works on both bipolar and unipolar patients at the same rate of around 50%. And there are other reports that say it works little better than a placebo and some that say it works just as well as a placebo. Electro Convulsive Therapy does not have a sustained benefit. Within 6 months patients go through remission. It is important that patients use other forms of treatment to work along with the ECT. With the use of psychiatric medicines the relapse rate increases from 6 months, generally.


There is a lot of criticism over the use of electro convulsive therapy. One of the areas of criticism are around the side effects experienced from the treatment. Memory loss and confusion are the two most popular side effects. Patients claimed that the therapy took away years of their lives. Some could not remember anything up until the surgery. Famous writers like Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath (both received ECT) said that the treatment took away their artistic abilities. One of the first successful lawsuits against ECT (which was less than 10 years ago) was a psychiatric nurse who after treatment could not remember any of her training and was unable to get a job.

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