A new review by investigators led by John Read, PhD, University of East London, conclude there is no evidence to show that ECT is effective in either its target demographic or its target diagnostic group. They say its use should be suspended until more robust research proves it is safe and effective.
However, the review’s conclusions have been met with passionate opposition from expert psychiatrists who say ECT can be a lifesaving treatment for patients, many of whom have exhausted all other treatment options. Other clinicians maintain that the review itself is fraught with methodologic shortcomings that invalidate its conclusions.
“We’ve concluded there is no adequate research on which to base an answer to the question, ‘Does ECT work?,’ ” Read told Medscape Medical News. “We’re not actually saying ECT doesn’t work. We’re saying there’s no way to know whether it works or not on the basis of the current research, which, after 80 years of the treatment being used, is pretty amazing.”
On the other hand, Read said there is substantial evidence to suggest ECT causes significant adverse events. “Depending who you ask, the psychiatrists or the patients, somewhere between 12% and 55% of patients get permanent or persistent memory loss,” he said.
“So there is a very serious cost to its use, and if there’s a serious cost, you ... have to know that there’s a very strong efficacy benefit, and we just don’t know that. That’s why we’re calling for suspension until there is adequate research,” Read added.
The study was published in a recent issue of Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry.
ECT remains a popular treatment modality for resistant depression. Global data show that it is used to treat almost a million patients every year. Although ECT continues to be the subject of comparative research, the investigators say that most of these studies do not adhere to the same standards that govern clinical trials of other psychiatric medications and medical interventions.
The investigators also note that to date, only 11 placebo-controlled studies of the efficacy of ECT have been conducted. They write that the last study to compare ECT with sham or simulated ECT (SECT) – in which a general anesthetic was administered but the electricity was not – was performed in 1985. Nevertheless, this relatively small body of evidence has been the basis of many meta-analyses.
In the current review, the authors evaluated the impartiality and robustness of these previous meta-analyses and the quality of the studies that were included.
“The primary goal is not to assess whether or not ECT is effective,” they write. “The intent, instead, is to determine whether the available evidence is robust enough to answer that question.”
For Read, the decision to analyze the current state of ECT research was both personal and professional.
“As a young nursing attendant in a Bronx hospital, I had the job of sitting with people as they came around from ECT. It was my job to try to explain why they didn’t know who they were, where they were, why their head was throbbing, and why people would do something like that to them,” he said.
“On the research side, this is my sixth review, and in each one we’ve reached the same conclusion,” Read added.
Other research stands in direct opposition to the current review’s findings. Many studies have concluded that ECT is safe and effective for patients with depression.