The Corpus Callosum

Brain Stimulation Wars

ResearchBlogging.orgJust as
we learn of favorable studies about rTMS (see yesterday’s post on this blog), studies that suggest
that ECT could be surpassed, the ECT camp fires again.  A new
study by Sackeim indicates that a new form of ECT is highly effective,
with lower negative impact on cognition.  The difference is in
the length of the electrical pulse.  They use what they call
an ultrabrief pulse (0.3 millisecond), as opposed
to the traditional 1.5 millisecond pulse.

of pulse width and electrode placement on the efficacy and cognitive
effects of electroconvulsive therapy

Harold A. Sackeim PhD, Joan Prudic MDa,
Mitchell S. Nobler MDa, Linda Fitzsimons RNa, Sarah H. Lisanby MDa,
Nancy Payne CSWa, Robert M. Berman MD, PhDa, Eva-Lotta Brakemeier MAa,
Tarique Perera MDa and D.P. Devanand MD

Brain Stimulation
Volume 1, Issue 2, April 2008, Pages 71-83


Although electroconvulsive therapy
(ECT) in major depression is effective, cognitive effects limit its
use. Reducing the width of the electrical pulse and by using the right
unilateral electrode placement may decrease adverse cognitive effects,
while preserving efficacy.


In a
double-masked study, we randomly assigned 90 depressed patients to
right unilateral ECT at 6 times seizure threshold or bilateral ECT at
2.5 times seizure threshold, using either a traditional brief pulse
(1.5 milliseconds) or an ultrabrief pulse (0.3 millisecond). Depressive
symptoms and cognition were assessed before, during, and immediately,
2, and 6 months after therapy. Patients who responded were monitored
for a 1-year period.


The final
remission rate for ultrabrief bilateral ECT was 35%, compared with 73%
for ultrabrief unilateral ECT, 65% for standard pulse width bilateral
ECT, and 59% for standard pulse width unilateral ECT (all P
< .05 after covariate adjustment). The ultrabrief right
group had less severe cognitive side effects than the other three
groups in virtually all primary outcome measures assessed in the acute
postictal period, and during and immediately after therapy. Both the
ultrabrief stimulus and right unilateral electrode placement produced
less short- and long-term retrograde amnesia. Patients rated their
memory deficits as less severe after ultrabrief right unilateral ECT
compared with each of the other three conditions (P
< .001).


use of an ultrabrief stimulus markedly reduces adverse cognitive
effects, and when coupled with markedly suprathreshold right unilateral
ECT, also preserves efficacy. ( number, NCT00487500.)

Note the following: random, doulbe-blind design (good); 90 patients
(fair); 1-year follow up (good); cognitive effects assessed by patient
ratings (not so good).

Note that an even longer follow-up period would be good, and that, in
order to be convincing, I would want to see comprehensive
neuropsychological testing performed periodically on all participants.

As in all such studies, we really need to see replication in order to
believe it.  This particular study is something that we all
want to believe, but wishing does not make it so.  In fact,
that kind of wishing makes it particularly important to be cautious in
interpreting the results.  The fact that it is plausible at
face value is another reason to be cautious.

I am not faulting the authors.  It is expensive to have a
really large, (and preferably) multi-center study.
 Neuropsychological testing is particularly expensive.
 It makes sense to do a more limited study first, to see if
the expense of a more definitive study has a chance of being

Although ECT is highly effective, the cognitive problems are a major
impediment to wider implementation.  See this study (The
long-term impact of treatment with electroconvulsive therapy on
discrete memory systems in patients with bipolar disorder
for a full discussion.  The authors conclude that their
findings “raise the question of whether certain strategies that
minimize cognitive dysfunction with ECT should be routinely employed in
this patient group.”  Until now, it has not been clear exactly
what those strategies might be.  

I will be interested to see what comes of this.  
groups have long derided in particular.
 Even unbiased persons have a hard time accepting the
rationale and clinical utility of ECT.  If it is possible to
further reduce the adverse effect burden, it is possible that public
acceptance eventually will improve.  

For this to happen, though, it will be necessary to avoid overplaying
the technical advances, and to communicate clearly and openly the
implications of new developments.  Some persons have gotten to
be skeptical of announcements of techincal advances in medical
treatments.  And rightly so, as demonstrated by the experience
with Vioxx and other supposedly new-and-improved treatments.  

formal citation:
BERMAN, R., BRAKEMEIER, E., PERERA, T., DEVANAND, D. (2008). Effects of
pulse width and electrode placement on the efficacy and cognitive
effects of electroconvulsive therapy. Brain Stimulation, 1(2),
71-83. DOI: 10.1016/j.brs.2008.03.001


  1. #1 slim
    May 29, 2008

    Has anyone ever thought of using ECT to treat chronic migraine?

    It may seem like a drastic step, but for those of us with 10-14 migraine days a month, it would be worth a shot…

  2. #2 Joseph j7uy5
    May 29, 2008

    I did know one person who had reduction in migraine after ECT, but there are reports of ECT causing migraines, at least acutely (right after the procedure.) If we had any idea or who is likely to get better, it might make sense to try. But a quick search did not turn up any studies on the use of ECT to treat migraine.

    Without a plausible mechanism that is understood, or a significant body of anecdotal evidence, it would be hard to get approval for such a study.

  3. #3 Woobegone
    May 31, 2008

    Getting an ECT-for-migraine study past ethics would be very difficult. Also, my guess would be that the benefits, if any, would be fairly short lived, meaning that unless you were willing to be shocked on a regular basis indefinitely, it might not be much help.

    There has been some promising work on TMS for migraine however:

  4. #4 Trent H.
    October 3, 2009

    I’ve had issues with major depression and migraines (about 2 a week) since the mid 90s. I started having ECT Jan 09 and have had about 2 ECT sessions a month since. Personally, I’ve found ECT very helpful for both. I still have the migraines which are cause smells but for the most part the migraines have been greatly reduced.

  5. #5 Bill M.
    April 23, 2012

    I had ECT in 2007 for depression (& to a lesser extent “normal” but chronic headaches). It did no good whatsoever for my depression & about 4-6 months after ECT I had an acute “attack” of migraine type headaches which I’d never had previously that fully incapacitated me for at least one month. It took about a year to even be semi-functional again & even worse – I have had headaches almost every minute ever since. I am still fighting this battle in April 2012! I cannot prove ECT was the cause but it is a curious coincidence.

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