ECT and Pronounced Impairment in Spatial Cognition: The Fallacy of Drawing Conclusions From a Single Case

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Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is associated with memory deficits on neuropsychological assessment. The association of ECT with nonmemory cognitive deficits has been poorly studied.


We present a 40-year-old woman who showed a bizarre form of spatial cognition impairment on a subtest of the Tactual Performance Test (TPT) after recovering from depression with 6 alternate day, thrice-weekly, inpatient ECT treatments. This woman was part of a naturalistic, nonblind study that examined nonmemory cognitive deficits in antidepressant-treated depressed patients who did and did not receive ECT.


The impairment was in the form of bizarrely drawn reproductions of differently shaped wooden blocks that had been presented to the patient when she was blindfolded. The impairment was still evident when she was retested (3 hours later) under substantially simplified conditions but was much attenuated approximately 2.5 weeks later.


On the surface, it seems that ECT had induced severe impairment in spatial cognition and that the impairment showed the familiar pattern of attenuation with the passage of time. However, another recovered patient in the study, who did not receive ECT, also showed substantial spatial deficits on the same subtest of the TPT, and the attenuation of the deficits across time in the ECT-treated patient was probably a result of repeated exposure to the task. We suggest that not all patients who seem to experience spectacular cognitive impairment after ECT have deficits that are attributable to ECT.

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