Short- and Long-term Cognitive Outcomes in Patients With Major Depression Treated With Electroconvulsive Therapy

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Abstract

Objectives

The risk of cognitive impairment is a concern for patients with major depressive disorder receiving electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Here, we evaluate the acute, short-term and long-term effects of ECT on tests of processing speed, executive function, memory, and attention.

Methods

Forty-four patients with major depressive disorder receiving ECT (61% right unilateral, 39% mixed right unilateral–bitemporal, left unilateral, and/or bitemporal lead placement) underwent a cognitive battery prior to ECT (T1), after 2 sessions (T2), and at the end of the index (T3). Thirty-two patients returned for a 6-month follow-up (T4). Thirty-three control subjects were assessed at 2 times approximately 4 weeks apart (C1 and C2).

Results

At baseline, patients showed deficits in processing speed, executive function, and memory compared with control subjects. Including depression severity and lead placement covariates, linear mixed-model analysis showed significant improvement in only processing speed between T1 and T3 and between T1 and T4 in patients. An acute decline in attention and verbal memory was observed at T2, but performance returned to baseline levels at T3. Longitudinal cognitive outcomes did not differ in patients defined as ECT responders/nonresponders.

Limitations

Episodic memory was not measured, and medications were not controlled between T3 and T4. Control subjects also showed improvements in processing speed, suggesting practice effects for some measures.

Conclusions

In this naturalistic ECT treatment study, results show that the initiation of ECT may transiently affect memory and executive function, but cognition is largely unaffected during and after ECT. Whereas some functions might improve, others will at least remain stable up to 6 months following the ECT index.

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