The side effect of ECT that has received the most attention
is memory loss. ECT results in two types of memory loss.
The first involves rapid forgetting of new information.
For example, shortly after the treatment, patients have
difficulty remembering conversations or things they have
recently read. This type of memory loss is short lived
and has not been shown to last for more than a few weeks
after the completion of ECT.
second type of memory loss concerns events from the
past. Some patients will have gaps in their memory of
events that occurred in the weeks to months and, less
commonly, years before the treatment course. This memory
problem also improves after the completion of ECT. However,
permanent gaps in memory may exist for some events,
particularly those that occurred close in time to the
As with any treatment, patients differ
in the extent to which they experience side effects,
and more extensive memory loss has been reported. It's
important to note that the benefits of ECT are not related
to memory loss – that is, patients don't feel
better simply because they can't remember something.
Furthermore, relief through ECT of a psychiatric disorder
can result in improved intelligence, attention and learning
As for other side effects and risks, scientific
evidence strongly speaks against the possibility of
ECT causing brain damage. Careful studies in animals
have shown no evidence of brain damage from brief seizures
such as those given with ECT. In an adult, seizures
must continue for hours before brain damage occurs while,
the ECT seizure lasts only about 1 minute. Brain scans
after ECT have shown no injury to the brain. During
ECT, the amount of electricity that reaches the brain
is too small to cause electrical injury.
It is estimated that death associated with ECT occurs
in 1 out of 10,000 patients. This rate may be higher
in patients with severe medical conditions and is most
closely associated with the use of anesthesia, just
as it would be with any minor procedure. Because of
this strong safety record, ECT is often recommended
to treat mental disorders in patients with serious medical