Columbia University Medical Center
Ranked #1 in Psychiatry
U.S. News & World Report
Ranked #1 in Research Funding
National Institutes of Health
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital The University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell

Ask the Experts

Question:

I was told by a psychiatrist that the new theory about ECT is that it "basically fries the brain". Is this accurate?

Answered by: Joan Prudic

Existing scientific evidence does not support this theory of the mechanisms by which ECT produces its effects. Numerous animal studies have shown that structural brain damage does not occur as a result of brief seizures, such as those given with ECT.

Usually seizures must go on for hours before brain damage occurs in adults; ECT lasts about a minute. Brain imaging studies, using both CT and MRI, done in patients before and after ECT, has found no structural changes from the treatment course. The amount of electricity used in ECT raises brain temperature far less than 1/10 of a degree and can not cause electrical injury. Much greater swings in body temperature occur during the course of daily activity and circadian temperature rhythm.

ECT belongs to a group of treatments known as brain stimulation therapies. The actual physical processes underlying psychiatric illnesses are still being defined, and it is not known exactly how ECT reduces psychiatric symptoms. It is thought that ECT acts to correct imbalances in certain brain areas through changes in brain chemistry. Research is ongoing to define the mechanisms of treatment response.