(scroll down for full page, over 150 scientific studies, searchable data)
ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, shock treatment, electroshock) involves the application of two electrodes to the head to pass electricity through the brain with the goal of causing an intense seizure or convulsion. The process always damages the brain, resulting each time in a temporary coma and often a flatlining of the brain waves, which is a sign of impending brain death. After one, two or three ECTs, the trauma causes typical symptoms of severe head trauma or injury including headache, nausea, memory loss, disorientation, confusion, impaired judgment, loss of personality, and emotional instability. These harmful effects worsen and some become permanent as routine treatment progresses.
If you are new to the subject of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) or shock treatment, here are three
(3) Read Dr. Breggin’s two overview scientific articles: Breggin, 1998 and Breggin, 2010. The 2010 article contains a short summary of ECT’s damaging effects that was written to inform the FDA. Also read Jones and Baldwin 1992 for a powerful overview.
If you want to pursue the scientific literature concerning injury from ECT in this resource center (more than 150 scientific papers), here are the steps:
(1) To begin an initial review of scientific reports in the “Table of Contents of Scientific Articles” (below on this page), you can start by searching the term "Key Article." By searching "Key Article" you will locate a number of basic overview and research studies. Use the search mechanism on your browser by selecting "CTRL + F" and entering the word you want to search.
Note: To search any of these terms on this page for relevant studies, use the search mechanism in your internet browser. For Windows users, click the "Control" key and the "F" key at the same time and a search window will pop up in the corner. Enter the key word you wish to search in that window.
ECT has often been used abusively by husbands to render their wives more docile and submissive, sometimes with the intentional help of the shock prescriber (e.g., Tien, 1972). These studies of abuse also demonstrate the harmful effects on any human being, male or female, regardless of any malicious intent.
There are risks associated with anesthesia, including death.
Studies of brain damage in large animals given ECT show cell death and small hemorrhages scattered throughout the brain, often most intensely under the electrode placements. The actual data and graphics in these studies often show more severe damage than the authors’ watered-down conclusions. Hartelius (1952) performed the most important study using cats which led a reviewer of his book (Hartelius, 1953) in a neurology journal to conclude that brain damage had been proven. Instead, Hartelius’ work was ignored by the psychiatric profession and ECT advocates.
Personal memories of key life events from the past including weddings, the birth of children, and vacations are the most obviously impaired or eradicated by ECT. Sometimes years of homemaking, educational and professional experiences are obliterated. The effect is to demolish the individual’s sense of identity. I have evaluated many of these individuals who lives have been demolished with tragic results for their loved ones as well.
Professionals and reformers have frequently called for a ban on ECT.
BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor)
This is a growth factor whose production is increased in reaction to ECT. It is called a benefit by ECT advocates. In reality, it is a response to brain trauma, and provides more evidence that ECT injures the brain. Also see Neurogenesis (new growth of brain cells), which also occurs after ECT as a response to brain damage, but which some ECT advocates claim is a positive outcome.
Bilateral ECT with one electrode placed on each side the temples over the frontal and temporal regions of the brain is by far the most common form of ECT. It is also the most obviously damaging. Since ECT “works” by damaging the brain and mind, practitioners have been unwilling to give up bilateral ECT because they consider it the most “effective.” To obtain the same results with other forms of ECT, practitioners often give additional numbers or raise the power on the ECT machine in order to inflict additional damage.
Animal and some human studies confirm that ECT causes brain damage. In humans it is most obviously demonstrated by an initial global loss of mental functioning after each ECT (see delirium) and other typical signs of Head Injury. In many cases this injury progresses with routine ECT into persistent dementia.
The Brain-Disabling principle states that ECT “works” by damaging the brain, sometimes resulting in an initial euphoria (euphemistically called “mood elevation”) and always resulting in varying degrees of apathy, indifference, docility and emotional blunting with an inability to feel or express depressed mood, all of which advocates label as “improvement.”
Caffeine has been used to lengthen seizure duration but increases risk including brain damage.
Cardiovascular (also search Asystole)
ECT can cause heart attack.
Because ECT patients are not given informed consent (or they and their families would not accept the treatment) and because one or more ECTs will always render the patient unable to protest, ECT is an offense against civil rights. See Involuntary and Coercion.
This is a broad term that encompasses memory dysfunction function as well as impairment in learning new material, abstract reasoning, problem solving and other higher functions. Most ECT studies focus on memory loss but many also mention cognitive dysfunction. Check all the memory resources to get a full picture of broader cognitive dysfunction.
See delirium and head injury.
ECT candidates and their families are never told how damaging the treatment is or they would not agree to it. Furthermore, after one or more ECTs individuals are rendered so helplessly confused and submissive that they become incapable of giving rational or informed consent. Therefore, after a few treatments, all ECT becomes involuntary and therefore abusive and a violation of human rights.
Even establishment sources, such as the NIH Consensus Development Conference, agree that ECT is extremely controversial. Potential patients and their families have a right to know this.
After one or more treatments, ECT always produces some degree of confusion and disorientation, or delirium, formerly called an acute organic brain syndrome. Therefore, ECT always damages the brain. The only question is “How complete is recovery?” Recovery is always incomplete from routine ECT as evidenced by memory loss and often the individual is permanently and severely impaired. Also see head injury.
EEG or electroencephalogram
Brain wave studies routinely confirm acute harm and in some cases persistent harm to the brain. This is a measure of gross brain malfunction. Also see Flatlining. Changes worse on side of electrode in unilateral nondominant ECT, confirming electrical injury.
Efficacy or Effectiveness (also see Sham)
Controlled clinical trials show no positive effect from ECT beyond 4 weeks after the last treatment. It takes the patient’s brain at least 4 weeks to begin recovering, so ECT only “works” while the patient is acutely injured, suffering from some degree of delirium and gross head injury. Controlled clinical trials in which the control group consists of patients who are anesthetized without being shocked (sham ECT) do not show any benefit from ECT.
Many ECT patients are elderly women and the elderly are especially susceptible to harm from any form of brain injury, including drugs and ECT. These articles also confirm increased mortality, brain damage and memory dysfunction.
The FDA has twice declared that ECT machines, which have never been tested, are unsafe and in need of testing for FDA approval. The first time it suggested testing, the agency backed down under pressure from psychiatry. More recently the FDA has overridden psychiatry and declared that it will require testing of the machines. But the agency has not put forth any plans for testing. The FDA and psychiatry do not want to face how damage has already been done and continues to be done. Also see Machines.
Flatlining of brain waves on EEG
Flatlining of the brain waves on the EEG, also called Postictal Suppression of the EEG, commonly occurs immediately after the ECT-induced convulsion. Flatlining is a lifeless or flat EEG with no electrical signals or brain waves. Some advocates correlate the degree of flatlining with the degree of “therapeutic” effect, again confirming that the damage is what “works.” In reality, flatlining is a sign of severe damage and impending brain death, and when irreversible is used to confirm brain death. Also see brain-disabling principle.
One ECT electrode always sits over the frontal lobes and in bilateral ECT both are placed over the frontal lobes on each temple area of the head. The energy is most intense and damaging beneath the electrodes. Therefore, ECT works in part by causing an electrical lobotomy. Also see Lobotomy.
After the first one or two ECT, and increasing with each ECT, individuals develop all the typical signs of what is technically called closed-head injury or simply head injury. These signs include headache, nausea, memory loss, disorientation, loss, disorientation, confusion, impaired judgment, loss of personality, and emotional instability. Euphoria sometimes occurs but is always followed by apathy and indifference. Therefore, there can be no question about whether or not ECT causes brain injury or damage. The only question is “How complete is recovery?” ECT-induced injury to the brain causes lasting harmful effects.
Intensive (extreme, regressive, annihilation, or intensive ECT)
Intensive ECT involves the administration of more than once ECT per day or large numbers of ECTs over time. The grossness of the harm done to these people shows in the extreme what happens during routine treatment to a less severe but nonetheless harmful degree. Advocates invariably find these very damaged patients to be improved, again confirming the brain-disabling principle of ECT treatment.
ECT is sometimes given against the expressed wishes of a patient by a parent, surrogate or guardian, or by court order. This is an extreme civil rights abuse. See Coercion and Civil Rights.
A number of key studies are labeled Key Article to help in beginning an initial review.
Lobotomy and Psychosurgery
Because at least one electrode is placed over the frontal lobes, ECT becomes an electrical closed-head lobotomy as demonstrated in brain function studies.
Many or Multiple ECT
Increasing numbers causes more damage and dysfunction. Also see Intensive.
Machines--Also see Thymatron, Somatics, and MECTA
ECT machines have never been tested or approved for use by the FDA. Because it is such an old treatment (invented in 1938), it was grandfathered into use without any testing. In the past there was concern that the machines were unsafe because they delivered too much energy. Crude and untested controls were put on them to control the amounts of electricity delivered and now some advocates lament that they cannot deliver enough power because of the safeties. Nonetheless, the energy level is devastating.
Dr. Breggin was the expert in the first successful ECT malpractice jury verdict. After the trial, a state Court of Appeals confirms Dr. Breggin’s testimony about the harm done by ECT. Many other of his cases have been settled.
Many studies show varying degrees of permanent memory loss and dysfunction and often include more generalized cognitive dysfunction as well.
Neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells)
ECT advocates claim that newly discovered ECT-induced neurogenesis is good for the brain. Instead, neurogenesis is a response to traumatic brain injury. ECT causes small hemorrhages, ischemia, inadequate blood supply, electrical trauma, and other effects which can cause neurogenesis. ECT-induced neurogenesis is one more proof that it causes brain injury. Also see BDNF.
Newspaper articles about controversy swirling around ECT in the US and Canada, including the FDA’s decision to require testing of ECT machines.
The term “Non-ECT” designates articles that are not specifically looking at ECT or other forms of electrically induced seizures. Some of the articles demonstrate that other forms of injury also produce either neurogenesis and/or BDNF, confirming that neurogenesis after ECT is a response to brain damage. Other articles deal with epileptic seizures. Seizures or convulsions without ECT by themselves can harm the brain and cause permanent damage. However, ECT-induced seizures are much more powerful and damaging, in part because of the electrical trauma and the “therapeutic” goal of producing repeated and prolonged seizures, and even flatlining of the brain waves.
Origins of ECT
The inventors of ECT, Bini and Cerletti, knew and approved the fact that they were causing brain damage. For more about origins, see also see below, Breggin, 1979, pp. 114, 140-141, 164-165, 214-215.
Overview or Review articles
These articles cover a wide range of topics related to ECT and can provide a comprehensive analysis of the harm done by the treatment.
These articles present the viewpoint of the person or patient after ECT. The most important data about the harm from ECT comes from these self-reports, but ECT advocates avoid listening to their patients and seldom mention their viewpoint in their studies. Reading a number of these studies provides overwhelming evidence for the devastation that ECT causes in the lives of many people. These reports are among the most scholarly as well as the most informative. They represent the academic fields of qualitative, sociological, content and feminist analysis. Also see search items “women” and “abuse.”
Postictal Suppression of brain waves
See Flattening of brain waves.
Lengthier seizure duration is sometime advocated but causes more brain damage.
There are no studies to support the claim that ECT reduces suicide. ECT does not reduce suicide and instead in some cases worsens it. There is no reason to use ECT as a “last resort.”
Studies on victimization of women by ECT illustrate how ECT can be used as a method of abuse, especially in making people more submissive and docile. These studies also show the damaging effects on anyone, whether female or male. Also see Abuse and Personal.
These studies show that ECT’s harmful effects are made worse by pre-existing brain damage, for example, from head injuries or brain disease.
Table of Contents for more than 150 Scientific Articles
-American Psychiatric Association Task Force 1978. Survey shows 32% of psychiatrists have “some degree of opposition” to ECT; and 41% agree and only 26% disagree with “It is likely that ECT produces slight or subtle brain damage.” Brain Damage. Controversy.
-Bini 1938. The ECT co-inventor describes the production of seizures in dogs by rectal and oral electrodes. Bini sees the widespread damage as part of the treatment, and began human ECT the same year. Brain damage. Animals. Origins. Brain-Disabling Principle: “These very alterations [widespread brain damage] may be responsible for the favorable transformation…” p. 174.
-Bocchio-Chiavetto, et al. 2006. ECT increases BDNF and this is seen as positive by the authors. However, it’s a marker for brain injury. Also see BDNF for explanation.
-Breggin 1979. The complete PDF of Dr. Breggin’s 1979 book Electroshock. Every aspect of ECT is covered and remains relevant today. For the serious scholar or student, this book is the place to begin. More recent studies simply confirm the older data and conclusions, as well as the brain-disabling principle of psychiatric treatment.
-Breggin 2010. Key Article. Most current peer-reviewed overview. Written for the FDA during its deliberating that has led the agency say it will require testing of the machines. Brain Damage. Memory Dysfunction.
-Breggin 2011. Brain Damage (chronic brain impairment, CBI). Describes the effects of brain injury (less then dementia) from ECT, drugs, and trauma.
-Cerletti 1950. Origins. Bini’s use of mouth-anal electrodes was to reduce gross brain damage for study purposes (p. 88) (see Bini 1938 for widespread brain damage.) From beginning, Bini and Cerletti knew they were damaging the brain.
-Davies et al. 1971. Davies et al. say the machines need safety controls over to limit excessive power. Nowadays some advocates complain that the controls don’t allow for enough power to be delivered to have sufficient effect. Davies et al. 1971 (p. 98) cite a personal communication from Janis stating that some memory deficits found in Janis’s research lasted at least for a full year after ECT.
-Hartelius 1952. Key Article. Brain Damage. Animals. Cats. 128 pages. Definitive. The summary at the end can be read by itself.
-Hartelius 1953. Key Article. Book Review of Hartelius (see above above) in a neurology journal that concludes that brain damage has been proven by Hartelius (1952). After this admission, advocates which almost uniformly ignore Hartelius, Alpers, Ferraro & Roizen and other animal researchers and instead falsely declare that there is no evidence for brain damage in animals.
-Janis and Astrachan 1951. Memory Dysfunction. Autobiographic. Personal. This definitive study was simple to do. The authors collected autobiographical memories from ECT patients before and after ECT, and found great losses. ECT advocates for years afterward avoided repeating this simply study. More recently they have approached the problem with simple questionnaires, with actually interviewing the patients, and even this narrow approach confirms that ECT causes serious gaps in all-important life memories, such as weddings, births of children, and vacations. Patients also lose portions of their education, and their homemaking and professional skills, but advocates rarely test for this. Personal accounts collected by independent observers confirm these broader losses.
-Janis 1950. Key Article. Memory Dysfunction. Autobiographic. Personal. Davies et al. 1971 (p. 98) cite a personal communication from -Janis stating that some memory deficits found in Janis’s research lasted at least for a full year after ECT.
-Kohn et al. 2007. ECT further reduces blood flow to frontal lobes in depressed patients. This confirms the brain-disabling principle. Less blood flow means impaired function and the risk of brain damage.
-Older 1994. Key Article. Non-ECT. Shows effects of injury to non-dominant side of brain (compared to unilateral nondominant ECT). While harder to detect, the injury is widespread to cognition (abstract thinking, generalizing) and personality.
-Parent 2003b. Non-ECT seizures can cause brain damage and cognitive dysfunction. Quote (p. 1): “However, scientific data are slowly accumulating to suggest that recurring seizures may contribute to nerve cell injury in the brain, and this may be associated with declines in cognitive function and quality of life.” Keep in mind that ECT seizures are much more intense and frequent, and far more damaging.
-Sackeim et al. 2007. Key Article. Long-term follow up. Memory loss. Cognitive Dysfunction. Brain Damage. A dementia syndrome described but not identified or diagnosed as such. Bilateral worse shows drastic harm to all patients.
-Sackeim et al. 2000. Memory and Cognitive Dysfunction. Bilateral worse, including disorientation. Brain-disabling principle of higher doses more effective. More powerful machines needed!
-Summers et al. 1979. Describes lengthy delirium (acute organic brain syndrome) after a few ECT. Memory loss. Cognitive dysfunction. Brain-Disabling principle. Relates brain dysfunction to effectiveness. Notice the comparison to head injury.
-Sun 2008. Neurogenesis. BDNF (really bFGF, very similar). Brain damage.
-Suppes et al. 1996. Degree of Flatlining Correlates with “Effect” of ECT after 6 treatments (the period of severe trauma). Confirms brain-disabling principle.
-Templer et al. 1973. Bender-Gestalt inferior (brain damage) in 40-plus ECTs. Intensive. Many ECT. At end, denies relationship to brain damage without explanation. See Templer 1982 and 1992, more definitive.
-Weiner, 1980. Based on literature review, EEG typically produces gross abnormalities in the EEG (indicating generalized brain injury) and depending on the study, some or many patients do not recover. The EEG is one measure of gross changes in brain function, confirming persistent brain damage in many cases. See Flatlining.
-Wells. 2012. Key Article. Toronto Star. Newspaper article about Controversy. Personal.
-Wilson 2011. Key Article. New York Times. Newspaper article about FDA decision to require testing of ECT machines. FDA says ECT and the machines raise serious risks but ECT machines (the whole treatment process) have never been tested.
-Zarubenko et al. 2005. The convulsion in ECT causes brain cell death in the hippocampus, the area closely associated with memory, in mice. Animals. Brain damage. This article also discusses the implications for human ECT and also for neurogenesis in ECT as a response to brain cell death.