Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as “shock treatment,” is a procedure in which an electric current is passed through the patient’s head, causing a convulsive seizure. The theory is that violent convulsions can somehow “reset” the brain and relieve the symptoms of mental illness. There is no explanation of how or why this might work, and it has never been proven.
Electricity and Brain Cells
Electric current is a flow of electrons through an object, such as a patient’s head. It is measured in “amperes,” which specifies the number of electrons that are moving through the object each second. But the object presents a resistance to the flow of electrons, and the pressure that is forcing the electrons through the object is the voltage, measured in “volts.” So, for any particular object, the higher the voltage (more volts) the more current will flow (more amps). The voltage pulls on the electrons, and, when they move, we have a current flow.
An ECT machine applies a voltage to electrodes placed on the patient’s head. Modern ECT machines apply that voltage not continuously, but in brief pulses. First one electrode goes positive and the other one negative, causing the electrons to be pulled in one direction. Then, after a brief pause, the polarity is reversed, pulling the electrons in the opposite direction. This creates a jackhammer effect on the brain cells, and there is the risk of tearing holes in the cells. This same technique is used to kill cancer cells. In addition to that, the electric current causes heating in the brain, and that can damage or even kill cells.
A typical ECT treatment involves 70 pairs of pulses per second (the pulse frequency), and it lasts from five to eight seconds (the duration). Modern ECT machines automatically adjust the voltage, using up to 460 volts, to get a specified amount of current to flow. The current can be set between 0.5 and 0.9 amps.
How much electricity is that?
For a comparison, currents above 0.01 amps are considered dangerous, with a risk of injury or death. ECT devices use up to ninety times that much current. The safety electrical outlets that are installed near sinks and bathtubs will automatically shut off the electricity if they detect that 0.006 amp is possibly shocking a person. That is less than 1% of the amount of current that ECT machines use. A police TASER delivers only 0.002 amps, 450 times less than an ECT machine.
For each ECT treatment a psychiatrist sets the amount of current, the pulse frequency, and the duration of the shock. Normally they experiment with different settings to find out how much electricity is required to keep the patient convulsing for at least half a minute after the shock is over. Then they increase the intensity to as much as six times that amount. Also, the amount of electricity goes up as patients get older and after they have been shocked more and more times. Modern ECT practice uses paralyzing drugs to prevent violent convulsions that could otherwise break teeth and bones. But these drugs also increase the amount of electricity required to produce a seizure. All of these factors add up to much more electricity being used on the brain nowadays than in times past.
Brain cells are no strangers to electricity. They communicate with each other by sending electrical signals back and forth. But those signals are less than 0.2 volts. An ECT machine can apply up to 460 volts to the patient’s head. That is 2,300 times the voltage that individual brain cells normally use.
The Practice of ECT
Psychiatrists claim that ECT is only used in cases of severe depression where drugs were tried and didn’t work. Statistics show, however, that ECT is widely used in a broad range of much less severe disorders. They claim that the only common side effects are brief headaches and a short period of memory loss. Many patients, however, report severe pain, permanent loss of memory, lowered IQ, and reduced ability to perform simple mental tasks. Psychiatrists also claim that ECT is an effective treatment for many forms of mental illness. But, in reality, any changes that could be called “improvements” last for only a relatively short while. After that, patients receive regular “maintenance treatments” of ECT for months or years. It is not unusual for ECT patients to receive hundreds of shock treatments during their lifetimes.
Doctors who treat physical diseases know the organs they are treating and understand exactly how the treatments work to improve the patient’s condition. Psychiatrists, on the other hand, freely admit they have no idea how passing electric current through patients’ brains could benefit them in any way. They blow off the question with frivolous statements like, “It reboots the brain.” The most plausible explanation for short-term relief is that injury to the brain triggers the release of healing hormones that produce a temporary high.
ECT and Brain Damage
The mental treatment that preceded ECT was lobotomy, which is deliberate brain injury. ECT was introduced as a less traumatic way to produce “therapeutic” brain injury. In response to public outcry, psychiatry now denies that modern ECT causes brain damage. This is a question that could be answered by scientific research studies. But the people who should be doing those studies are those who profit most from the practice of ECT, and few definitive studies have been done. For example, there have been only three scientific studies, done in the past thirty years, that examined the brains of deceased ECT patients at the microscopic level. Other brain damage studies look indirectly for rather large types of damage, and many of these do show evidence of ECT-induced changes in the brain. Still the industry denies brain damage.
Valid scientific research requires that the investigators take careful steps to insure that their personal bias does not influence the results of the study. But many ECT research reports state at the outset their intention to prove that ECT does not cause brain damage. That is not science.
ECT and the Profit Motive
Delivery of ECT is a highly profitable endeavor. Over 100,000 people are shocked each year in the USA. Treatments cost $1,000.00 apiece. A series of ECT treatments done on one patient can produce $35,000.00 in revenue for a hospital. It is a multi-billion dollar business in the United States alone, and it is growing.