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Electroconvulsive therapy treats depression by reducing hyperconnectivity in the brain

Published on 20/03/2012

Scientists have discovered that controversial electroconvulsive therapy for the severely depressed works by ‘turning down’ an overactive connection between areas of the brain.

Electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, has been used by psychiatrists around the world since the 1930s. ECT involves anaesthetising a patient, placing electrodes on the temples and delivering a small electrical current to induce a seizure.

Whilst ECT has been used for over 70 years, up until now the underlying mechanisms of the therapy have remained unclear. Some psychiatrists believe that ECT works by causing brain damage.

But now, a team of scientists at the University of Aberdeen have shown for the first time that ECT could work by ‘turning down’ an overactive connection in the brain that causes severe depression.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers analysed MRI scans of nine patients before and after ECT.

The six male and three female patients, from the Royal Cornhill Hospital in Aberdeen, all suffer from severe depressive disorder, and had failed to respond to chemical antidepressants.

But after undergoing ECT twice weekly, with an average of 8 treatments, their symptoms abated.

Scientists observed a decrease in connectivity in the brain after ECT treatment, accompanied by an improvement in the patient’s depressive symptoms.

Professor Ian Reid, professor of psychiatry at the University of Aberdeen and consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Cornhill, said: "For the first time we can point to something that ECT does in the brain that makes sense in the context of what we think is wrong in people who are depressed."

"If we understand more about how ECT works, we will be in a better position to replace it with something less invasive and more acceptable."

People’s experience of ECT varies enormously, because it is a short-term treatment which does not prevent future depression. Many patients experience temporary memory problems after ECT, and some people feel violated after the procedure.

Researchers now hope to continue monitoring the patients to see if the depression and hyperconnectivity returns.

Patients who want to be covered for treatment like ECT on their private medical insurance should compare health insurance policies with full psychiatric cover.

© ActiveQuote Ltd. 2012

Categories:  Medical
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