A Brief History of Electroshock Therapy (ECT)
Almost everyone who I know who has undergone electroshock therapy and every doctor
associated with mental illness treatment seems to know the same horrible story of Ugo Cerletti,
the Italian psychiatrist, who in 1938 came up with the idea for treating human beings with
electroshock therapy. Cerletti was observing the barbaric act of slaughterhouse pigs being
electrocuted into unconsciousness to make it less difficult for workers to slit their throats and
thought that it could be applied to the treatment of mental illnesses in human beings. It’s not too
pleasant of an image to think about while you’re laying on a gurney about to go into the
operating room for your first treatment.
The concept of having electricity pass through your brain is daunting enough to frighten even the
most educated of people. The reputation of electroshock - - also referred to as electroconvulsive
therapy or ECT by proponents - - has suffered. Not more than a year after Cerletti got his
brilliant idea, the New York State Psychiatric Institute introduced ECT into the United States.
For the next thirty years, hundreds of thousands of patients of all ages, received electroshock
treatments for every type of “disorder” including depression, mania, schizophrenia and even
homosexuality and truancy.
But by the end of the 1960s, electroshock had almost vanished from the psychiatric scene. The
film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was released in 1975. Jack Nicholson played the
unforgettable character who is given unwanted and unnecessary electroshock treatments and his
fellow patients on the ward were portrayed as lobotomized-looking, hollowed-out souls who had
trouble recognizing friends and family. Their capacity for speech and language had been
damaged and they often ended up needing to be institutionalized. "Cuckoo’s Nest" played a
major role in discrediting ECT.
It was the great leap in creating psychotropic medications, especially antidepressants, which
were able to do what electroshock therapy was supposed to do but even more efficiently, that
slowed down the use of ECT. Soon, ECT was “put on hold” - - it was performed less frequently.
These new psychotropic medications were not nearly as barbaric as jolting a patient with an
electrical current and inducing a grand-mal seizure.
The Procedure of ECT
ECT is usually administered to patients in a series of treatments, ranging from six to twelve
treatments over a two week period. Most of these patients have had no success on
antidepressants or mood stabilizing medications.
The patient’s heart rate is monitored throughout the procedure, which actually lasts no more than
ten minutes in the operating room. He receives an IV of an anesthetic (i.e. Brevital) in his arm
and usually is asked to count (I was asked to count backwards) until he becomes unconscious.
Then an IV of succinylcholine is put in the arm (relaxing the muscles to prevent broken bones
and cracked vertebrae), a rubber block is inserted in the mouth to prevent biting on the tongue, a
mask is placed over the mouth so the brain is not deprived of oxygen and conducting jelly is
rubbed on the temples and electrodes connected. The doctor presses a button and electric current
shoots through the brain, causing a grand-mal seizure for 20 seconds. Usually, the patient wakes
up in about 30 minutes. I remember waking up completely confused and not knowing where I
was or what had happened. My jaw ached, my limbs were sore and I had a horrible headache,
almost as if I had downed a Margarita too quickly!
Different 50 Years Ago
Patients in the 1950’s sometimes received more than 100 treatments. The amount of electricity
used was also greater, and the waveform and the stimulus was different. Anesthetics and muscle
relaxants were not used (patients were shackled to the gurney but there were still broken bones
and vertebrae) and they were not closely monitored. ECT today is different than it was fifty years
ago. How ECT works, with minimal damage to the patient, has a lot to do with how it is
currently administered. There are two advances that have improved the procedure. The first is
nondominant unilateral ECT, which is the use of electrodes only to the right side of the patient’s
head (as opposed to bilateral), protecting the left side of the brain, the site of language and
auditory memory. The other advance has been the introduction of brief-pulse stimulus - - a quick
jolt of electricity instead of a steady stream, making it less likely that the patient will later suffer
serious problems with memory.
Side Effects of Electroshock Therapy
It is well established and documented that memory impairment is the worst side effect and is the
one most frequently cited by patients. Most ECT specialists say that memory loss is transient and
concerns principally the time immediately after electroshock treatment. The other most common
side effects are headaches, nausea, confusion and muscle ache or soreness. Over the course of
ECT, patients may have difficulty remembering newly learned information. Some patients report
memory loss for events that occurred during the day, weeks, and months preceding ECT. I have
memory loss from the period six months before my first treatment through the period ending six
months after my last treatment (a total of thirty months). Most of these memories return, but
some patients have reported longer-lasting problems with recall of some of these memories and
some patients have claimed they have “permanent brain damage.” I still am unable to recall all
my memories and the events from this period. Researchers have yet to find evidence that ECT
damages the brain. They have established that the amount of electricity which actually enters the
brain is much lower in intensity and shorter in duration than that which would be necessary to
damage the brain. But there are cases of patients who have reported improved memory ability
following ECT because of its ability to remove the amnesia that is sometimes associated with
How Electroshock Therapy Might Work
What is most incredible is that doctors do not know why ECT actually works to fight mental
illnesses, which often makes making a decision to have ECT even more difficult for a patient. It
seems so unscientific and remains a mystery. But here are the major theories:
* Neurotransmitter theory. Shock works like antidepressant medication, changing the way
brain receptors receive important mood-related chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine and
* Anti-convulsant theory. Shock-induced seizures teach the brain to resist seizures. This effort
to inhibit seizures dampens abnormally active brain circuits, stabilizing mood.
* Neuroendocrine theory. The seizure causes the hypothalamus, part of the brain that regulates
water balance and body temperature, to release chemicals that cause changes throughout the
body. The seizure may release a neuropeptide that regulates mood.
* Brain damage theory. Shock damages the brain, causing memory loss and disorientation that
creates a temporary illusion that problems are gone. Shock supporters strongly dispute the
theory, advanced by psychiatrist Peter Breggin and other shock critics.
ECT and the Debate
ECT has undergone a complete image makeover in the last twenty years. It has regained
respectability. Many psychiatrists now consider it an efficient way to relieve severe depression or
to break a manic cycle for the manic depressive. Its success rate, according to the American
Psychiatric Association (APA), is 80%, considerably higher than the 50% to 60% success rate of
most antidepressant medications. And according to ECT advocates, it can restore a severely
depressed or manic patient to health in half the time it takes medication - - sometimes as little as
three weeks to reach a therapeutic level.
When I tell people that I’ve had nineteen electroshock treatments, they seem surprised that it is
still being used as a treatment in this country. But ECT has made a big comeback and is thought
of as being kinder and gentler today. Only thirty years ago, it was still being used to punish and
subdue patients in psychiatric hospitals. In the last fifteen years, the tremendous increase in
treating mental illness with medication has allowed ECT to come out of the closet.
But critics of ECT (and there are many who are quite organized and started their own anti-ECT
groups) argue that it is primitive and outdated. They also believe that positive results are short-
term and that patients who undergo ECT suffer cognitive problems, including significant
memory loss and learning. They think that what looks like “relief” is really just the “slap-happy”
effect of a head trauma. ECT’s opponents have even been so vocal and powerful that they helped
pass ordinances prohibiting the use of the treatment in some cities - - including Berkeley,
California (although the court later overturned the ban). There are also others who argue that it is
overused and point to the fact that it is quite a lucrative treatment, usually covered by insurance.
Only five states - - California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas - - require its
hospitals to keep hard statistics on electroshock treatments. The most recent year for which the
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has any ECT data is 1980, when it reported that
33,384 patients underwent shock treatments in the United States. By 1996, that number jumped
to an estimated 55,000. And by 1998 it had doubled to 100,000. Approximately twice as many
shock treatments as tonsillectomies were performed in this country in 1998. ECT’s opponents, to
prove its overuse, tend to exaggerate this number; its proponents, to demonstrate its underuse,
NIMH is currently studying the effects of ECT on patients who are simultaneously taking anti-
depressant medication. Their results are expected in early 2006.
Many patient advocacy groups agree that modern day ECT has come along way. The National
Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMDA), the National Alliance for the
Mentally Ill (NAMI) and the National Mental Health Association (NMHA) all recognize the
value of ECT. The most recent American Psychiatric Association task force report - - from 1990
- - calls ECT “often the safest, fastest and most effective treatment” for severe depression.
Both camps are at different ends of the pole, much like the abortion issue. The leading opponent
of ECT, Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist and author, feels that the price is too high. “Taking a
chance at electroshock is like playing Russian roulette with your brain,” he says. He thinks it is
no more sophisticated than hitting someone over the head with a two by four. He believes that
“for a time, people become silly, shallow and giggly, like a teenager who has sniffed glue - - or a
person who has just had shock treatment.” There also exist groups around the country of
unhappy former ECT patients, like the Committee for Truth in Psychiatry, which believe that
patients are inadequately informed about the potential dangers of ECT, and lobby state and
federal legislators on the issue.
Under “informed consent” protocol, permission to administer ECT comes after a careful review
of the treatment with the person providing consent. The psychiatrist explains what ECT involves,
what other treatments might be available, and the benefits and risks of treatment. The person
consenting to the procedure is kept informed of progress and may withdraw consent at any time.
A psychiatrist may not force a patient to have ECT or decide for the patient that it is the
appropriate treatment. He or she must obtain written consent from the patient, or if the patient is
too ill to make decisions for him or herself, from a court-appointed guardian.
Anyone who is considering ECT should not rely only on the available information offered by
either the pro-ECT or anti-ECT camps, because both are skewed by various agendas. You might
do yourself a disservice by trying to make a decision based on the literature. It’s a difficult and
Celebrities and ECT
In the past sixty years, a number of well-known artists, writers, actors and politicians have
undergone ECT. For some, the experience was traumatic and devastating, while for others, it was
a blessing and a salvation. Some of these celebrities include Vivien Leigh, Tammy Wynette,
Dick Cavett, Ken Kesey, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Moriarity, Lou Reed and Yves Saint
There are nerves that connect the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. The idea behind
psychosurgery, later proven to be invalid, was that these nerves were somehow malformed or
damaged, and if they were severed they might regenerate into new, healthy connections.
Contrary to popular conception, the operation was not used only on psychiatric patients. Many
people were lobotomized for “intractable pain”, such as chronic, severe backaches or agonizing
The three common versions of psychosurgery were prefrontal leucotomy, prefrontal lobotomy,
and transorbital lobotomy.
A leucotomy basically involved drilling holes in the skull in order to access the brain. Once
visible, the surgeon would sever the nerves using a pencil-sized tool called a leucotome. It had a
slide mechanism on the side that would deploy a wire loop or loops from the tip. The idea was to
be able to slide the “pencil” into the pre-drilled holes in the top of skull, into the brain, then use
the slide to make the loop(s) come out. The surgeon could sever the nerves by removing “cores”
of brain tissue, slide the loop back in, and the operation was complete.
A lobotomy also utilized drilled holes, but in the upper forehead instead of the top of the skull. It
was also different in that the surgeon used a blade to cut the brain instead of a leucotome.
The infamous transorbital lobotomy was a “blind” operation in that the surgeon did not know for
certain if he had severed the nerves or not. A sharp, ice-pick like object would be inserted
through the eye socket between the upper lid and eye. When the doctor thought he was at about
the right spot, he would hit the end of the instrument with a hammer.
There were other types of lobotomy as well … as many varieties as there were imaginative
Despite the fact that there was extensive evidence that psychosurgery was not therapeutic,
operations continued unabated for decades. This was because it was considered unprofessional to
criticize another physician in public, so many doctors who knew that psychosurgery was a farce
did not make their opinions known. This allowed the psychosurgeons to continue unchecked
from the late 1930s through the 1970s.
Egas Moniz, the First Psychosurgeon
Egas Moniz, an ambitious Portuguese neurosurgeon, invented the lobotomy in 1935 at a hospital
in Lisbon. The first procedure was called “prefrontal leucotomy” and the instrument he used was
named a leucotome, from the Greek leuco, meaning “white matter”, and tome meaning “knife”.
Moniz yearned to win a Nobel Prize. He felt that he had been cheated out of winning one for his
earlier work in cerebral arteriography, and he constantly scanned the medical horizon for a
promising area which might provide the opportunity to try for another. His chance came when he
attended the Second International Congress of Neurology in London, where he met a doctor
named Walter Freeman. The two attended a symposium devoted to Drs. James Watts and Carlyle
Jacobsen of Yale University, who described their experiments that involved destroying the
frontal lobes of two chimpanzees. They reported, not surprisingly, that the animal’s learning
capacity was severely diminished, but they also related that their emotional states had been
Dr. Moniz rose and asked, “If front lobe removal prevents the development of experimental
neuroses in animals and eliminates frustrational behavior, why would it not be feasible to relieve
anxiety states in man by surgical means?” The shocked audience listened as Dr. Watts managed
to say that it would be a “formidable undertaking” in a human being.
As soon as Moniz returned to Lisbon, he began to select convenient psychiatric patients to
attempt psychosurgery upon. He need to hurry if he was going to be the first to find a useful
brain operation and have a shot at the Nobel. Hastily he tried different operations before
publishing breathless articles trumpeting his imaginary cures. Within months the prefrontal
leucotomy and variations thereof were being performed all over the world.
In 1949 Egas Moniz’s long desired dream came true and he was awarded half of the Nobel Prize.
Walter Freeman, American Lobotomist
Dr. Walter Freeman of George Washington University and Dr. James Watts of Yale brought
Moniz’s leucotomy to the US and immediately began to select and experiment on humans,
leaving many disabled patients in their wake. They kept encountering problems like the knife
breaking off in people’s brains, unexplained seizures, and total disorientation. After
experimenting on many people they finally formulated the “Freeman and Watts Standard
Lobotomy” and began touting it in the medical community.
This operation did not satisfy Freeman. He knew that an immense contribution to medicine
would be a cheap, quick, and effective treatment for mental illness and pain. To this end he
developed the transorbital lobotomy, at first using an actual dime-store ice pick and a rubber
mallet. Again, the problem of breakage occurred. Freeman persevered and was soon performing
the brain operation for every complaint imaginable and anywhere he happened to be, even in his
own office. Watts was not happy with this state of affairs, telling Freeman that he must “stop
doing brain surgery as an office procedure” or Watts would sever their partnership, which is
what he eventually did.
Walter Freeman began to travel around the nation in his own personal van, which he called his
“lobotomobile”, demonstrating transorbital lobotomy in any hospital that would have him. He
even performed a few in hotel rooms, lobotomizing children as young as thirteen for “delinquent
behavior” and housewives who had lost their zeal for domestic work.
Freeman had his critics, but they generally confronted him privately with comments like, “You
are simply substituting brain damage for madness.” Freeman would hear nothing of it, certain he
had found the cure for most mental illness and chronic pain.
He lost his medical license at the end of his career when he killed a patient who was seeing him
for her third transorbital procedure. Freeman defended himself and his creation until the end of
his life, but his ideas were soundly rejected, particularly in the face of new pharmaceutical
options that had become available. However, he occupies a place of honor at GWU to this day.
In the end, at least fifty thousand people were lobotomized by the psychosurgeons. The
transorbital patients were often the most functional since there was a reasonable possibility that
the doctor had missed their nerves all together. The less fortunate victims were warehoused in
institutions, or they returned to families who were often unable to cope with such severely
No one in the medical establishment has ever apologized to the victims of this travesty.