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ECT Really Does Cause Significant Memory Loss

There’s a three-year hole in my life in which I remember almost nothing.  Toward the end of that period I had a course of 21 Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) treatments administered over five months.

I lived in Phoenix and I couldn’t even tell you where my apartment was.  I was married during that time, and the few pictures I have fire no recognition.

I do remember the routine before each treatment.  A pair of nurses named Nancy and Karen, one dark-haired with her sleeves pushed up, the other a red-head with glasses, prepped me with an IV and wheeled me into a tiny room.

The doctor came in.  Nancy slipped out while Karen placed a blood-pressure cuff around my right ankle.  The doctor pressed the electrodes against my temples and fiddled with the dials on a machine placed off to my right.  He slipped a block of rubber between my teeth just as the anesthesia in the IV kicked in and all went dark.

That’s the best I can do. That’s all there is.  Everything else is gone.

It’s possible, even likely, that the shock treatments saved my life.  I raged with psychotic mania and severe suicidal impulses before the ECT. All that went away for a couple of years after.  But my memory of that time is gone, too, and an awful lot of other things that happened in my life, at other times, are beyond my ability to recall them as well.

My memory is still pretty poor.  But maybe it always was.  I can’t remember.

For a long time psychiatrists told me that the memory loss associated with ECT is minor and temporary. There were a lot of voices that contradicted this, but they seemed shrill and unscientific.

Maybe things have changed. My ECT was done back in 1999.  Maybe the techniques used today don’t damage the memory as much.  Or maybe my memory loss and my still-poor memory can be attributed to other factors.

Other reasons for poor memory do exist.  It’s very difficult for the mind to lay down new memories during a manic episode, and I was manic a lot back then.  I’m also older now, and the memory does fade with time.

But it is most often correct that the easiest and most obvious reason for something is the right one. For me, that’s ECT.

Yet psychiatry had me so convinced that ECT was not responsible for my memory loss that the news that researchers are investigating erasing painful memories with ECT struck me with grim surprise.

This is out of the movies type stuff, but apparently it works in rats.  There are also documented cases where researchers have eliminated memories that trigger episodes of PTSD in humans.

That’s significant memory loss.

I’m sorry, science, but you can’t have it both ways.  Either ECT does cause significant memory loss or it doesn’t.  Erasing a painful memory seems pretty significant.

I know.  There are probably differences between the therapeutic shock given to a patient with suicidal psychotic mania and the amount used to purposely eliminate a specific memory.  It also seems that, in the research about ECT and PTSD, a memory is most likely to be erased if it is specifically recalled just before the ECT is administered.  If it’s not, it doesn’t go away.

Wide swaths of my memory are gone, not just specific events.  So maybe there’s a difference.

But, in some way, somehow, ECT does have the side effect of memory loss.  I don’t know if I’m against it.  It seems to have helped me.  But I wasn’t fully informed when I got it and I haven’t been since.

Informed consent from a person so torn by unreason that they need ECT is a thorny issue.  But if the memory-robbing effects of a procedure are so severe that they can possibly cure PTSD, the person facing that procedure, ECT, should know about it.

If neurological researchers are going to use ECT to purge the mind of memories, then psychiatry has to fess up about the possible damage it can do to all who undergo shock therapy.



ECT Really Does Cause Significant Memory Loss

George Hofmann

George is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, from Changemakers Books. Visit George's site or join the Facebook group Practicing Mental Illness

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APA Reference
Hofmann, G. (2019). ECT Really Does Cause Significant Memory Loss. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 May 2019
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