Evidence-Based Reviews

Neuromodulatory options for treatment-resistant depression

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Some earlier trials found bilateral ECT to be more effective than unilateral ECT.12 Recent studies suggest that high-dose unilateral ECT (6 times the seizure threshold) is as effective as bilateral ECT.13 Studies have shown no significant differences in efficacy or treatment outcomes between twice- and thrice-weekly ECT regimens. Some studies suggest that twice-weekly ECT may be associated with a lower risk of short-term cognitive impairment compared with thrice-weekly ECT.14

In highly refractory cases, the effects of ECT can be augmented by using pre-treatment strategies such as hyperventilation, which may increase the duration of the seizure, and remifentanil, which helps reduce the anticonvulsant effect of agents used for anesthesia.15 Advanced age, psychotic features, resistance to pharmacotherapy, and comorbid personality disorders predict poor response to ECT.16

Adverse effects. Concerns about cognitive deficits secondary to ECT may curtail its use. Retrograde and anterograde amnesia are the most common deficits observed acutely after ECT.12 Other commonly affected cognitive functions include processing speed, attention/working memory, verbal and visual episodic memory, spatial problem solving, and executive functioning. The specific patterns of these deficits (in terms of duration and severity) vary between studies. In general, high-dose, thrice-weekly ECT and bilateral ECT are associated with greater cognitive deficits, whereas twice-weekly ECT and unilateral ECT are associated with a lower risk of cognitive adverse effects.12 A recent meta-analysis by Semkovska and McLoughlin17 found that most cognitive deficits seen after ECT are limited to the first 3 days after treatment. The authors of this meta-analysis concluded that these impairments improve over time and approach baseline 2 weeks after treatment. In fact, some of these impairments (processing speed, working memory, anterograde memory, and some aspects of executive function) improved beyond baseline after 15 days of treatment.17 The need for anesthesia and associated potential adverse effects also are a cause of concern with ECT.

Combining ECT with medication. Several patient-specific factors, including medication regimen and comorbid medical conditions, need to be considered before using ECT in combination with pharmacotherapy. Although most antipsychotics are safe to use with ECT, concomitant use of agents with higher antihistaminic properties may increase the risk of delirium. The risk of delirium also is increased with the use of anticonvulsants and mood stabilizers (eg, lithium) because these agents increase the seizure threshold. The potential for drug interactions may affect the choice of the anesthetic agents. Also, SSRIs and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors can increase the duration of induced seizures.18

Vagus nerve stimulation

VNS, in which an implanted device stimulates the vagus nerve with electrical impulses, initially was used to reduce the frequency of seizures in patients with epilepsy and treatment-resistant partial onset seizures.19 VNS was FDA-approved for TRD in July 2005.20 One VNS system, the NCP System, consists of an implantable, multi-programmable generator, known as a pulse generator, that is subcutaneously placed in the anterior chest wall during an outpatient surgical procedure. Separate bipolar nerve-stimulating electrodes are surgically wrapped around the left cervical vagus nerve, and then connected to the generator via a tunneling procedure. A telemetric wand is subsequently linked to a portable computer and used to adjust stimulation parameters.21,22


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