It’s a common misconception that electroshock therapy, portrayed in the latest season of Stranger Things as nearly torture, vanished from the doctor’s tool kit decades ago. But the treatment has been refined and well studied in the last few decades—patients go under general anesthesia, and the electric current is delivered with much more control—and it’s now considered a safe and effective treatment for some psychiatric illnesses.
Scientists still aren’t quite clear how or why electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) works, but they know that it’s effective in patients with severe depression, particularly those who aren’t helped by traditional antidepressant medications. Now, some early research suggests that the treatment might be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, as well.
Patients with PTSD treated with ECT after thinking about their traumatic memory had a marked decrease in their emotional reaction to that memory, finds new research presented this weekend at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting. The people with PTSD didn’t forget the traumatic memory, but it stopped triggering the wave of negative emotion typical with PTSD.
“They remember well,” says study author Felipe Corchs, a professor of psychiatry at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. “We’re not erasing anything. They just have less emotional reaction to the memory.” He says that’s exactly what you want from a treatment for PTSD. Scientists have used drugs like ecstasy to similar effect; it seems some mind-altering substances, when used in conjunction with therapy, can help patients separate traumatic recollections from the intense psychological responses they usually trigger.
Only eight people were enrolled in the ECT study, which included patients with severe PTSD that hadn’t responded to other methods of treatment. “They had tried at least three different antidepressants, and even then were living very, very impaired lives because of…