ECT and the erasure of memories

A piece of research conducted in the Netherlands and published in Nature Neuroscience has created a great deal of media interest over the past couple of weeks. “Shock therapy could treat trauma” (from the Independent of 23 December) was typical of the headlines.

“Shock therapy could treat trauma
Unpleasant memories can be wiped out by electric shock therapy, a study in Nature Neuroscience says. The discovery raises the possibility of helping victims of post-traumatic stress. Currently electroconvulsive therapy is only reserved for certain forms of mental illness.”

The title of the original article was not quite so exciting: “An electroconvulsive therapy procedure impairs reconsolidation of episodic memories in humans”. In fact it turns out to be a fairly routine experiment using people undergoing ECT to study theories about memory. People were shown two stories before having ECT, in the case of one story being reminded about it shortly before treatment,  and then asked questions about them after ECT. I haven’t read the article but it would appear to be an enormous leap to go from this experiment to ideas about treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or erasing unwanted memories.

ECT does erase memories but in not in a selective way. And does erasing memories necessarily help people with PTSD? Perhaps a lost memory would still produce effects on a subconscious level.

Various experts were asked for their opinions. Dr Aidan Horner, from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, was quoted as saying:

“The ability to disrupt or even abolish specific memories, whilst leaving others intact, could have important therapeutic applications. For example, selectively disrupting memories in patients with psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, treatment using ECT is currently restricted to specific conditions (depressive illness, schizophrenia, and catatonia and mania). As such, any possible applications are at present limited to specific patient groups.”

This latter point is not completely true; ECT is used for other disorders as well, although those he mentioned account for the vast majority of ECT patients in the United Kingdom.

It is a pity no-one seems to have asked the Royal College of Psychiatrists for a comment. What would psychiatrists, who normally claim that the memory loss associated with ECT is temporary or minor or due to depression not ECT, make of a use for ECT that involves an admission that the memory can be significant?

In the Wall Street Journal Karim Nader, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada, was quoted: “It’s a clever demonstration and could provide a new tool for us clinically.” McGill University was the scene of the some of the most bizarre experiments ever on ECT and memory erasure, when in the 1950s and 1960s the Scottish American psychiatrist Ewen Cameron, partly funded by the CIA, used intensive ECT to deliberately produce extensive and permanent memory loss in his patients. Some of his patients have since received compensation, others are still trying.

For decades articles about ECT have often included something about the film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and photographs of Jack Nicholson. But since the media interest in this experiment from the Netherlands there has been a switch to talk of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Move over Jack Nicholson – it is time to make way for Jim Carrey!

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