January 29th, 2011

ECT machines deliver an electrical current to the brain which artificially causes a generalized seizure. The untested hypothesis behind ECT is that it ‘resets’ the brain and temporarily or permanently ‘cures’ the symptoms of depression.

How ECT may be therapeutic — there is no scientific evidence demonstrating the process by which ECT may ‘heal’ the brain— or how ECT may cause permanent memory loss — the side effect most frequently mentioned by patients, and for which there is a great deal of evidence that it does — is not known.

An 18-member expert panel advising the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided, after extensive hearings and analysis of the current ‘scientific’ literature on the subject, that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) machines must undergo the same rigorous testing as any new medical device, since not enough is known about ECT, also known as “electroshock” or simply “shock” therapy, to allow the devices to be used without more research into its usefulness and hazards.

The panel’s opinion is the latest chapter in ECT’s seven-decade history, during which the treatment has been lauded by psychiatrists though only a few patients as a lifesaver, villified by the vast majority of patients as a form of legally sanctioned torture, and has seen its popularity rise among psychiatrists in recent years after a long decline.

If the agency follows the panel’s advice, which it usually does, the two companies whose machines are used in the United States will have to provide evidence of the therapy’s safety and effectiveness either from existing research or new studies. If the FDA isn’t convinced (and, frankly, it’s fairly easy to convince the very-weak FDA — witness the destructive drugs on the market that are happily approved by the FDA), the devices could be removed from use.