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Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) in Addiction Treatment: Applications and Outcomes

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is a medical procedure involving the application of a controlled electric current to the brain, inducing a brief, controlled seizure. This therapy is primarily used to treat severe mental health conditions such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, especially when other treatments have proven ineffective. ECT is conducted under general anesthesia, with muscle relaxants to prevent physical convulsions, and is closely monitored to ensure patient safety. 

While ECT is well-known for treating severe depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, its application in addiction treatment is an emerging field. Addiction often coexists with severe mental health disorders, making comprehensive treatment approaches necessary. ECT is particularly effective for individuals with dual diagnoses, addressing both the addiction and the underlying psychiatric conditions. By alleviating severe depressive or psychotic symptoms, ECT reduces the psychological distress that often drives addictive behaviors, thereby supporting the overall addiction treatment process.

The outcomes of ECT in addiction treatment are promising, particularly for those with co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Patients often experience rapid relief from severe depressive and psychotic symptoms, which significantly enhance their overall quality of life and improve engagement in addiction recovery programs. This dual benefit not only stabilizes mental health but also supports sustained sobriety. Additionally, ECT reduces the frequency of relapses and hospitalizations, contributing to long-term recovery and improved daily functioning for individuals struggling with addiction.

What is Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is a medical treatment that involves applying a mild electric current to the brain to induce a controlled seizure. This procedure is used to treat addiction co-occurring severe mental health conditions, such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, especially when other treatments, like medication or psychotherapy, have been ineffective, as discussed by Salik, I. et al. (2022). “Electroconvulsive Therapy.”

Modern ECT is considered a safe and effective procedure, with rigorous protocols to minimize risks. While it causes temporary side effects like short-term memory loss, confusion, nausea, and headaches, these usually resolve within hours to weeks after the treatment. Despite its controversial history, advancements in medical practices have significantly improved its safety, making ECT a viable option for individuals with severe, treatment-resistant mental health conditions.

What Are The Physiological Changes Induced By Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

physiological changes induced by electroconvulsive therapy

ECT induces several physiological changes in the brain that contribute to its therapeutic effects. These changes span neurotransmitter levels, neuroplasticity, blood flow, and brain activity, according to Szuba, M. P. et al. 2000, “Physiological effects of electroconvulsive therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation in major depression.”

1. Alteration in Neurotransmitter Levels

ECT significantly affects various neurotransmitters crucial for mood regulation and cognitive functions.

2. Serotonin

ECT increases serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in mood regulation. Enhanced serotonin contributes to improved mood and reduced depression symptoms, as discussed by Ishihara, K., Sasa, M., et al. 1999, “Mechanism underlying the therapeutic effects of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) on depression.”

3. Dopamine

ECT also affects dopamine levels, which are associated with pleasure and reward. According to Landau, A.M., Chakravarty, M.M., Clark, C.M., Zis, A.P., Doudet, D.J. et at. 2011, “Electroconvulsive therapy alters dopamine signaling in the striatum of non-human primates,” adjusting dopamine levels helps improve motivation and overall mental well-being.

4. Norepinephrine

This neurotransmitter, involved in alertness and stress responses, sees a level change due to ECT. Increasing norepinephrine contributes to better stress management and alertness.

5. Promotion of Neuroplasticity

According to Pirnia, T., Joshi, S.H., Leaver, A.M., Vasavada, M., Njau, S., Woods, R.P., Espinoza, R., Narr, K.L. et al. 2016, “Electroconvulsive therapy and structural neuroplasticity in neocortical, limbic and paralimbic cortex,” ECT promotes neuroplasticity, which involves the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections.

6. Formation of New Neural Connections

ECT stimulates the brain to form new neural connections, enhancing cognitive functions and helping create a more robust and adaptable neural network.

7. Reorganization of Brain Networks

Neuroplasticity helps restore normal brain function by reorganizing neural networks. This reorganization aids in overcoming dysfunctional brain patterns associated with mental health disorders.

8. Increased Blood Flow and Metabolic Activity

ECT enhances cerebral blood flow and metabolic activity, improving overall brain health.

9. Reduction of Abnormal Brain Activity

ECT helps normalize abnormal patterns of brain activity, leading to stabilized brain function according to Sun, S. et al. 2022, “Electroconvulsive Therapy-Induced Changes in Functional Brain Network of Major Depressive Disorder Patients: A Longitudinal Resting-State Electroencephalography Study.” This normalization plays a significant role in reducing symptoms of mental illnesses. At the same time, consistent brain function aids in maintaining long-term improvements in mental health. 

What is the Procedure of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

procedure of electroconvulsive therapy

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is a structured medical treatment involving several carefully controlled steps to ensure safety and effectiveness. According to the Reference Module in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Psychology. 2023, “Electroconvulsive Therapy,” the procedure is divided into three main phases: preparation, the procedure itself, and post-procedure care.

Phase-1: Preparation and Pre-Procedure Assessments

Before undergoing ECT, patients must go through a comprehensive preparation process. This starts with a thorough medical evaluation, including a detailed psychiatric assessment to confirm the diagnosis and determine the appropriateness of ECT. A physical examination is also conducted to assess the patient’s health and identify potential risks or contraindications. Routine blood tests, electrocardiograms (EKGs), and other diagnostic tests are performed to ensure the patient safely handles the procedure. Informed consent is obtained after providing detailed information about the ECT procedure, including potential benefits, risks, and side effects. Additionally, patients and their families receive education about what to expect before, during, and after the procedure, helping to alleviate any anxiety or concerns. Preparation for anesthesia involves instructing patients to fast for several hours before the procedure and reviewing current medications, making adjustments, or temporarily discontinuing certain drugs to avoid interactions with anesthesia or ECT.

Phase-2: Steps During The Procedure

The actual ECT procedure involves several carefully controlled steps conducted by a team of healthcare professionals to ensure safety and efficacy:

Step-1: Administration of Anesthesia

  • The patient is administered general anesthesia to ensure they are unconscious and do not experience any discomfort during the procedure. A muscle relaxant is also given to prevent physical convulsions.
  • Vital signs, including heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels, are monitored throughout the procedure to ensure patient safety.

Step-2: Electrode Placement

  • Electrodes are placed on the patient’s scalp. Depending on the specific treatment plan and the treatment condition, the placement is unilateral (one side of the head) or bilateral (both sides of the head).
  • Common placements include right unilateral, bifrontal, and bitemporal, each chosen to minimize side effects while maximizing effectiveness.

Step-3: Electric Current Delivery

  • A carefully controlled electric current is passed through these electrodes, stimulating the brain’s neurons and inducing a seizure. The current used is very low, typically up to about 0.4 amps.
  • The seizure lasts 30 to 90 seconds and is closely monitored by medical professionals. This induced seizure is an intentional and crucial part of the treatment.

Phase-3: Post-Procedure Care And Monitoring

After the ECT session, patients require careful monitoring and support to ensure their safety and manage any immediate side effects:

1-Recovery from Anesthesia

Patients are moved to a recovery area where they are closely observed as they wake up from the anesthesia. Nurses monitor vital signs and ensure the patient regains consciousness safely. Common immediate side effects, such as confusion, headache, and muscle soreness, are managed with appropriate medications and supportive care.

2- Short-Term Monitoring

Medical staff conduct neurological assessments to evaluate the patient’s cognitive and physical status post-procedure. This includes checking for orientation, memory, and coordination. Patients often experience emotional responses, including anxiety or disorientation. Providing reassurance and emotional support is crucial during this period.

3- Follow-Up Care

Regular follow-up appointments are scheduled to monitor the patient’s progress, assess the effectiveness of the treatment, and manage any longer-term side effects. Based on the patient’s response, the treatment plan is adjusted. This includes changes in the frequency of ECT sessions or additional support through psychotherapy and medication.

What are the Applications of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is utilized primarily in the treatment of severe and treatment-resistant psychiatric conditions. The primary applications of ECT are as follows:

  • Substance Abuse Disorder 
  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Catatonia
  • Treatment-Resistant Conditions
  • Acute Suicidal Ideation
  • Neuropsychiatric Conditions

What are the Positive Outcomes of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

positive outcomes of electroconvulsive therapy

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) has been shown to yield several positive outcomes, particularly in the treatment of severe and resistant addiction cases. According to Noorazar SG, Emamizad S, Fakhari-Dehkharghani A, Pouya P. et al. 2023, “The Therapeutic Effect of Electroconvulsive Therapy in Patients With Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: A Quasi-experimental Study,” ECT is a safe and effective therapeutic strategy for patients with treatment-resistant OCD.

Rapid Relief of Severe Symptoms 

One of the most significant advantages of ECT is its ability to provide rapid relief from severe psychiatric symptoms that often co-occur with addiction. This is particularly crucial for patients experiencing:

  • ECT quickly alleviates symptoms such as profound sadness, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation, often within a few treatment sessions, which reduces the compulsion to self-medicate with substances.
  • Patients with severe manic episodes characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity, and psychosis experience a swift reduction in symptoms, decreasing risky behaviors associated with substance abuse.

High Efficacy in Treatment-Resistant Cases 

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has proven to be effective in treatment-resistant depression (TRD). In recent reports, 70% to 90% of patients with TRD responded to ECT according to Tokutsu Y, Umene-Nakano W, Shinkai T, Yoshimura R, Okamoto T, Katsuki A, Hori H, Ikenouchi-Sugita A, Hayashi K, Atake K, Nakamura J. et al. 2013, “Follow-up Study on Electroconvulsive Therapy in Treatment-resistant Depressed Patients after Remission: A Chart Review.” It is often the treatment of choice for:

  • Patients who do not benefit from antidepressants or other interventions often find significant improvement with ECT, enhancing their ability to engage in addiction recovery programs.
  • Individuals with schizophrenia who exhibit persistent psychotic symptoms despite medication see reductions in hallucinations and delusions, which support sobriety and reduce substance use.

Improvement in Quality of Life 

By alleviating severe psychiatric symptoms, ECT significantly improves a patient’s overall quality of life, aiding in their recovery from addiction. Benefits include:

  • Reduced symptoms enable patients to better engage in daily activities and social interactions, supporting a drug-free lifestyle.
  • Many patients return to their professional and social roles, improving their social and occupational functioning, which is crucial for sustained recovery from addiction.

Reduced Hospitalization Rates 

Effective ECT treatment leads to fewer psychiatric hospitalizations among individuals with co-occurring addiction and severe mental health disorders. This is due to:

  • Effective management of severe symptoms reduces the need for inpatient care, providing a more stable environment for addiction recovery.
  • Periodic maintenance of ECT helps prevent relapse, ensure long-term stability, and reduce the frequency of hospital visits, promoting sustained recovery from addiction.

Long-Term Benefits 

Many patients experience long-term remission of symptoms, particularly with follow-up maintenance sessions, supporting ongoing recovery from addiction. According to MacQueen G, Parkin C, Marriott M, Bégin H, Hasey G., et al. 2007, “The long-term impact of treatment with electroconvulsive therapy on discrete memory systems in patients with bipolar disorder,” ECT promotes neuroplasticity, aiding the brain’s ability to adapt and recover from both psychiatric disorders and the effects of long-term substance use.

What are the Risks and Side Effects of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

While Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) is effective for treating severe psychiatric conditions, it also carries certain risks and side effects. Understanding these potential issues is crucial for informed decision-making. Patients are provided detailed information about ECT’s potential risks and side effects. Informed consent ensures that patients (or their guardians) understand the treatment and agree to proceed with full knowledge of possible outcomes.

Cognitive Side Effects

Memory Loss

  • Short-term Memory Loss
  • Retrograde Amnesia
  • Anterograde Amnesia

Cognitive Impairment

  • Confusion: Immediately following the procedure, patients often feel confused and disoriented. This usually resolves within a few hours.
  • Attention and Concentration: There are temporary difficulties with attention and concentration, which typically improve over time.

Physical Side Effects

  • Headaches
  • Muscle Aches and Soreness
  • Nausea

Anesthesia-Related Risks

  • Cardiovascular Effects: Using anesthesia carries risks, such as changes in heart rate and blood pressure. To mitigate these risks, patients with pre-existing heart conditions are closely monitored.
  • Respiratory Issues: Anesthesia affects breathing. Medical professionals carefully monitor respiratory function throughout the procedure to ensure patient safety.

Psychological Risks

  • Emotional Distress
  • Impact on Mood

Rare but Serious Risks

  • Prolonged Seizures: Although ECT is designed to induce a controlled seizure, there is a small risk of protracted seizures, which are typically managed effectively by the medical team.
  • Cardiac Complications: In very rare cases, ECT causes serious cardiac events such as heart attack or stroke, particularly in patients with existing heart disease.

How Does Alternatives Compare to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)?

Mechanism of ActionInduces controlled seizureElectrical impulses to the vagus nerveMagnetic fields to stimulate neuronsElectrical impulses to brain regions
ProcedureShort sessions under anesthesiaSurgical implantation of the deviceNon-invasive magnetic coilSurgical implantation of electrodes
Primary UsesDepression, bipolar disorder, schizophreniaDepression, epilepsyDepression, anxietyParkinson’s, OCD, depression
DurationThere are a few minutes per sessionContinuous, device-based30-40 minutes per sessionContinuous, device-based
Sessions Needed6-12 sessions over weeksContinuous useDaily sessions over weeksContinuous use
InvasivenessNon-invasive but under anesthesiaInvasive (surgery required)Non-invasiveInvasive (surgery required)
Common Side EffectsMemory loss, confusionVoice changes, coughingScalp discomfort, headachesInfection, bleeding, device issues
SuitabilitySevere, treatment-resistant casesTreatment-resistant casesMajor depressive disorderSevere movement disorders, OCD
Follow-upPeriodic assessmentsRegular device check-upsRegular sessionsRegular device adjustments
Recovery TimeQuick, same day or next dayFew weeks post-surgeryImmediate resumption of activitiesFew weeks post-surgery

Can ECT be used to treat anxiety disorders?

While ECT is not commonly used as a primary treatment for anxiety disorders, it can be effective for individuals with severe anxiety that is resistant to other therapies, particularly when it co-occurs with depression.

How long do the effects of ECT last?

The effects of ECT can last for several months to years. Maintenance of ECT or ongoing therapy and medication may be needed to sustain the benefits and prevent relapse.

Does insurance cover ECT?

Most insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, cover ECT for approved psychiatric conditions. Coverage details and requirements may vary, so you must check with your specific insurance provider.

How does Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) compare to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in treating addiction?

Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) are both used in the treatment of addiction, but they serve different purposes and are applied in different contexts. ECT is primarily used to treat severe depression, which can co-occur with addiction, and it can be effective in reducing depressive symptoms that might hinder addiction recovery. MAT, on the other hand, directly targets the addiction itself by using medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. While ECT can be a valuable component of a comprehensive treatment plan, especially for individuals with dual diagnoses, MAT focuses on stabilizing the individual and facilitating long-term recovery from substance use disorders.

Can ECT be integrated with play therapy for treating addiction in adolescents, and what are the potential benefits?

Integrating Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) with play therapy could potentially offer a holistic approach to treating addiction in adolescents, particularly those with severe co-occurring mental health disorders. ECT can help alleviate severe depression or bipolar disorder symptoms, making the individual more receptive to other forms of therapy. Play therapy, which involves using play to help adolescents express and process their emotions, can then be used to address the underlying issues contributing to addiction. The combination of these therapies can provide both physiological relief from severe mental health symptoms and a supportive environment for emotional and psychological healing, leading to more comprehensive and effective treatment outcomes.

Can ECT be performed on children or adolescents?

ECT is occasionally used in children and adolescents with severe, treatment-resistant psychiatric conditions. The decision to use ECT in younger patients involves careful consideration and consultation with specialists.

How soon can patients resume normal activities after ECT?

Patients typically can resume normal activities within a day or two after an ECT session. However, they may need to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery until they fully recover from the anesthesia and any transient cognitive effects.

Ryan Wakim MD
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Dr. Wakim is a board-certified psychiatrist with a passion for and expertise in addiction, mood disorders, trauma-related disorders and the subspecialty of interventional psychiatry. He obtained his medical degree from West Virginia University where he also completed his residency training, finishing as chief resident. Dr. Wakim co-founded and served as the CEO of Transformations leading to a successful merger with Shore Capital in May 2021. He is purpose driven towards improving the standard of and removing stigma related to behavioral healthcare. Dr. Wakim enjoys golf, traveling and time spent with his two dogs, Lulu and Rayna.

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