by Mona Han
figures by Abigail Burrus

What comes to mind when you hear the term electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)? A cruel torture method for disobedient psychiatric patients portrayed in films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or a last-resort for treatment-resistant depression with less discomfort and fewer side-effects? New developments in using ECT to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might soon give us a new way to think about ECT: a tool to erase one’s painful memories, like the memory modification method in the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Dealing with Painful Memories:The focus of PTSD treatment

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects individuals who have gone through extremely frightening, painful, or stressful events in their life. A variety of situations can trigger PTSD symptoms: a war veteran can have flashbacks of fierce combat scenes, a terror attack victim can re-experience the horror of an explosion triggered by the sounds of firecrackers, and a victim of childhood abuse can have vivid nightmares well into adulthood. People who suffer from PTSD are haunted by their painful memories in a way that disturbs their daily functioning. The central focus of PTSD treatment has always been dealing with patients’ painful memories. Given its utility in many areas of psychiatry, ECT has been studied for its potential effects in modifying painful memories.

ECT is a medical procedure in which a brief, monitored seizure is generated in the patient’s brain by passing small electrical current through the brain while the patient is under general anesthesia. This treatment restores the chemical balance of the brain and is effective at alleviating the symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, including severe depression, mania, and psychosis. Due to the fact that this treatment was given to patients without general anesthesia in its early days, ECT treatment has been stigmatized, particularly in the past several decades. However, nowadays, ECT actually is a safe, quick and effective procedure with few side effects and is used to achieve faster recovery in some patients with depression.

An Almost Forgotten ECT Study in Rats

When people first administered ECT to patients in the 1930s to 1950s, they found that it caused memory impairments. In retrospect, that might have been an early sign of the possible utility of ECT for treating PTSD.

Another early indicator of ECT as a potential treatment for PTSD came from a study of rats in the 1960s. A group of researchers at Rutgers University led by Dr. Donald J Lewis showed that ECT might be able to specifically erase fear memories. The researchers first made rats associate a tone with a fearful memory by playing this tone as they electrically shocked the rats’ feet. Then, when the researchers played the tone again, the rats froze in fear and licked their water bottle less due to their memory of being shocked upon hearing the tone.

Dr. Lewis and his team then tried using ECT to erase the rats’ memories of being shocked. To do this, they first reactivated the fearful memories in rats by playing the tone that the rats found frightening and then gave the rats ECT immediately afterwards. Surprisingly, they found that rats that were given ECT treatment licked their water bottle more when they heard the tone compared to control rats that were not given the treatment. This suggests that  ECT impaired the fearful memory of being shocked.

Interestingly, the researchers found that in order for the ECT treatment to successfully impair the fearful memory, it had to be administered immediately after the researchers reactivated the memory by playing the tone that the rats found frightening. If Dr. Lewis’s team did not play the tone immediately before the ECT, the treatment had no effect on the rats. This suggests that ECT works by interfering with a memory as the rat is actively remembering it.

Rediscovering the Effect of ECT on Bad Memories

In 2014, nearly 50 years after the initial rat study, another group of researchers from Europe tested if ECT could help erase traumatic memories in patients with depression who were already undergoing ECT treatment. In their study, patients heard two traumatic stories involving violence or emotional pain through slide shows and narrative storytelling. One week later, only one story was “reactivated,” meaning the patients heard the traumatic story again. Immediately after the story was reactivated, patients received ECT treatment. The researchers then tested the patients’ memories of these two stories through multiple choices tests. As with the rats, the patients’ memories of the story that was “reactivated” immediately before ECT treatment were impaired. Impressively, they remembered the other story well, suggesting that ECT can be used to erase specific traumatic memories.

Possible Treatment Regimen for Erasing Painful Memories

Another 2014 study by group of psychiatrists from Germany showed that an ECT treatment regimen could be effective in ameliorating a PTSD patient’s symptoms. In this study, a single patient suffering from PTSD from a serious car accident and several episodes of sexual abuse underwent eight sessions of ECT.  Before each ECT treatment, he was asked to describe one of his traumatic memories (the car accident), which is equivalent to “reactivating” that specific memory like playing the tone for those rats or re-hearing one of the traumatic stories by those depression patients. Right after his description, he was anesthetized and administered an ECT treatment. As the treatment progressed, the patient began to have fewer flashbacks and reduced anxiety and depression, indicating that his PTSD was improving. Incredibly, by the end of the treatment course, the patient could barely remember the car accident.

Figure 1: People with PTSD are usually troubled by their memories of the traumatic events and suffer from the extreme negative emotions associated with these memories (as shown in the top panel); However, Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) has the potential to erase specific traumatic memories, and therefore help people restore the peace their mind (shown in the bottom panel).

Moving into Clinical Trials? Explore Underlying Mechanisms? Or Be Cautious of Ethical Problems?

Based on these past studies, the use of ECT treatment to free PTSD patients from their devastating and painful memories seems promising. With inventions such as ultrabrief pulse width (a new method with minimal discomfort and side-effects), nowadays, ECT treatment is no longer as frightening as it used to be. Considering that knowledge and acceptance of ECT are growing in the general population, we can imagine that in the near future, there will be an increasing number of clinical trials with attempts to use ECT to treat people with PTSD. ECT is still not perfect. Scientists are still trying to improve and perfect memory reactivation techniques, treatment frequency, and length. However, as it stands, ECT is an incredibly promising choice for psychological treatment.

Moreover, these ECT studies may help neuroscientists understand how memories are formed in the brain. Based on several significant research papers also published around 2014, scientists now know that memories can be stored in certain neural cells or their connections. However, what happens to these cells and their connections during memory reactivation and ECT is still mysterious. One can only imagine how our memories are created, retrieved, and recreated in our mysterious brain.

Mona Han is a second year graduate student in the Harvard PhD Program in Neuroscience. She studies the neurobiology of emotions from a perspective of glial cells.

For more information:

  1. To grasp the basics of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), check out this Scientific American article.
  2. For a more in-depth history of ECT, read this Scientific American article.
  3. The 1960s research on rats in the Science magazine can be found here. (
  4. This National Institute of Mental Health page explores the definition, causes, symptoms and treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  5. For more on using ECT to erase painful memories in humans, check out this TIME article.

25 thoughts on “Can We Erase Painful Memories with Electroconvulsive Therapy?

  1. This is some major Ugly and clueless propaganda. ECT has been destroying brain cells, causing amnesia and personality erasure for Decades.
    ECT destroys lives , that’s why it’s stigmatized. Its been deliberately used to destroy lives with or without General Anesthesia, since the beginning.

    This article is filled with half truths , distortions, and general misinformation.

    It is not a “small amount of electricity” . It was Never “forgotten” that it causes amnesia and memory loss. Electric Shock “Therapists” simply lied about it so they could get paid for it.

    You can look up the horror show of evil experiments done deliberately to erase peoples minds and personalities with it “Ewen Cameron” . This isn’t some fringe Doctor. Thus was head of the World Federation of Mental Health. Some of the victims of this evil “therapy” are still alive.

    In order for ECT to be safe , Getting Electroshocked in high voltages to the brain would have to be harmless.
    AND Having Grand Mal Seizures would also have to be harmless. Neither one is, and both cause memory loss and brain damage. That’s why we treat Epilepsy!!

    This is easily the most biased article ever to be published for SITN .

    SITN receives Public Health money to inform the public about cutting edge science and medicine. Not To propagandize the general public into giving themselves brain damage with obsolete and deadly quack treatments. WTF!
    Please use public funds more wisely and consider the health needs of the audience.
    Go reach out and talk to the Victims, the survivors, and their families before dredging up dangerous disproven treatments.
    Look at the Suicide Rates and early deaths of the “treated”

    1. Totally agree with you Adam. My mother had ECT as a last resort treatment for bipolar disorder and while she has been on an even keel since, her personality is gone. She is child/zombie like now.

      1. I’m so sorry that happened to your mom. My mom had the same procedure done and it actually helped her a lot. I guess it all depends on the patient. I checked this out because I have PTSD, all my relationships have been extremely abusive, and I’ve been raped by 8 different men starting at the age of 15, my most recent attack was in February. For 16 months I’ve also been infatuated with a man I never met, but he lifted me up when I was struggling just so he could kick me down. I got addicted to opiates and the past year has been hell. I’ve been clean for 73 days but I really want to forget this piece of shit who I can’t stop thinking about, I’m putting myself down, crying all the time, I need this shit to stop but I already have amnesia from the opiate abuse and looking at these comments this is probably not a good method of treatment for me. Guess that means ima need more pills smh.

  2. ECT saved my mother’s life. And that was over 20 years ago, when it wasn’t as refined as it is today. The stigma of ECT dates back to One Who Flew Over a Cuckoos Nest…it’s just not like that. It took my mother from psychotic suicidal depression unable to participate in treatment, to calm and a clean slate that could be built back into the person she was before her illness began. The memory loss was a blessing for her, wish my family all lost our memories from that timeframe too.

      1. The year of 2016 I had 13 etc treatments for ptsd and severe depression. The year of 2017 I had 14 more etc treatments all were done at the veterans hospital at Fayetteville Arkansas. I do not think I would be living today if not for those treatments. I can’t say that it was a easy thing to do but if you have a good doctor and he recommends them you should do them. My short term memory, day to day things is really bad. My thoughts of harming other people is less frequent. I can’t say that I look forward to tomorrow but today is better than before. I still go to bed and wake up in Vietnam every day, but etc saved my life and still get to see my girls. I hope this helps someone.

  3. Please where do I sign up? I suffer from PTSD after surviving domestic violence as an adult and sexual assault as a child and suffer from depression. I’m willing to try it!

  4. Hi, for the last two years i had in my life, had changed me so much, these memories are so painful and am traped in it that i cant escape because of my honesty and sincerity towards my unwanted Unfaithful commitments. I would be inspered if any treatment can erase my last two years memories. Pls reply if its possiable.

  5. Give me more information on this treatment
    And is it fully affective in wiping a memory this has been going on for 3 years now and i dont think it will ever leave my mind its constantly there. Please any info on this and where it can be done would be appreciated money is no object here for what this can do for me in my life.

  6. I have had 12 rounds of ECT 8 years ago for severe depression/anxiety & heavy narcotics addiction. It was the best thing I’d done for myself aside from getting rid of all the meds. I am a big advocate for ECT & often refer to it as a “reboot” when you decide to change. It doesn’t erase anything completely but seemed to restart my brain back to before things got too out of hand. I do have short term memory loss still but a very small price to pay compared to taking my life whether accidental or purposely. I have been on & off 1 or 2 antidepressants in 8 years, mostly off, but I wouldn’t hesitate to get a “tune up” if I needed another treatment or 2. ECT is (or was as of 2010,big facility, it should still be open) offered in New Jersey at Carrier Clinic. Good luck to all.

  7. Someone help ne i am suffering from depression from last 6 years negative thoughts destroy my life related with sexual thoughts i hate everyone just bcoz of my sexual thoughts whether its child ,adult ,my friends even my parents both male and female plxxx help me somebody plxxx help me

    1. Suriya-

      You are experienced PURE O- or intrusive-thoughts.

      First- remember- and know- You are not your thoughts. You may have these thoughts- but you do not act on them.

      The thoughts are simply your mind coming up with creative scenarios- For example, a person can stand at a train station- and the thought “What if I jump in front of that train ?” – this is not suicidal ideation- it is simply the function of the cognitive brain creating scenarios.

      Thoughts are NOT who you are- realise this deeply. Tell a professional- so you better understand what is occurring.

      Everything is OK- it is intrusive, compulsive thought- they are usually themed around ideas that are the complete opposite of our values-

      I hope this helps. Seeking professional help- as you have no need to be panicking. They will be able to explain this better than I can.

      Remember- Do not believe everything you “THINK”- you are not your THOUGHTS- they are just passing clouds.

  8. I was disabled with PTSD in 2012. After years of trying therapy and a host of pills (Gabapentin, Effexor, etc) I lobbied for ECT treatment. I underwent 90+ rounds of ECT from late 2016, through 2017 and into July of 2018 after reading relationship studies touting its aid with PTSD. I find now my brain does not have as quick a pathway to the trauma memories, making my daily life easier. But I also have extensive short-term memory problems, including forgetting what I am talking about, etc., as well as stroke-type symptoms of not recalling where things are in the house. I’m 56. I couldn’t wait or hope another drug would help. I’m still disabled, still have chronic PTSD, but at least I don’t think about killing myself every day.

  9. “This treatment restores the chemical balance of the brain…” What evidence is there for that?
    I know from personal experience that ECT is neither safe nor effective. It’s had devastating effects on my memory and cognitive function – one of the reasons psychiatry has no credibility.

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