by Xiaomeng 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.

Xiaomeng Han is a second year graduate student in the Harvard PhD Program in Neuroscience. She uses electron microscopy to study neuronal connectivity.

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.

40 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. It comes to this. Providers have taken it upon themselves to use an untested device and procedure by the FDA in decades. They do not test because all well aware this is TBI at minimum based on electrical trauma. Electrical trauma impacts all bodily systems. Damages from this type of trauma can evolve and extend years out. This can include cardiac and respiratory issues, and some are developing CTE and ALS as a direct result. Review low voltage electrical trauma. Just because done by arrogant physicians involving a societal discounted population does not change these known and anticipated damages to all with every single procedure. They just have not been exposed prior to this and now are scrabbling along with their risk management depts. to dress this up as useful. Patients are demonstrating damages on MRI, SPECT, VNG, EEG, and neuro/cognitive testing. If this patient came through the ER with this mechanism TBI would be anticipated as baseline. Culpable providers do not change the facts of these damages. Product device suit now national and I would encourage those impacted to contact the DK law group in CA who now own the website. There are medical malpractice firms interviewing, and suits pending against the FDA. Many would like to see criminal charges levied. This is not mental health treatment. It garners 5 billion annually in US alone. They cannot just simply stop doing this now, because all would have to admit damages if they do so . Patients currently can find little help though brain injuries have been identified to result. Doctors usually will not refer to specialist or order appropriated tests, as damages they know will prove out will then have to be addressed to causation. This will implicate their peers and fellow facilities. Many have a piece of the financial pie in either research, products, jobs ets. We as patients are sometimes committing suicide as we are ignored, minimized, and damages attributed to psychiatric cause vs. the truth of major brain trauma. Shame on all those who cover, promote, and participate in this practice. JUSTICE is coming and those responsible will be held accountable! They are not above ALL laws.

      2. Here’s a resource-me. ECT has GIVEN me PTSD. Not only have I lost long term and short term memory, I have lost 2015-2017 in it’s entirety. Me, who had the best memory of anyone I’ve ever known (and they would concur-it was practically my ‘super power’) can no longer remember my street address without looking it up.Previously I could remember every address, every phone number I have ever had-and in my life time I have moved 14 times.

        My IQ, which was tested as a child and as an adult measuring at/above “genius level” and yes, I know full well the limitation of IQ tests and what they actually measure, but I can no longer (it’s happening right now) come up with the “word”for what I am trying to convey. It’s worse than “on the tip of my tongue”. It becomes a game of charades. I describe the word and it’s meaning until my family or friend can guess what I am trying to say.

        I used to be an executive making a very comfortable living. Not anymore.

        I have nightmares about ECT. Of which I had bilateral over 50 times to treat medication resistant depression. Yes. Depression. I later found out the doctor was writing a journal article about the positive effects of ECT. (I graduated with a psych degree and am very disappointed in myself for not sticking up for myself.). Every time I went back in to the hospital the doctor asked if I had shown my psychiatrist “what a great job” he had done with me. (I was unable to go to my regular psychiatrist and ect at the same time because of my insurance.

        I have regular nightmares from reliving “going down the k-hole” because they were using ketamine as an anesthetic at least 15 before I asked if what I was experiencing was normal(it wasn’t-no one had ever asked and I didn’t know to ask) I LITERALLY felt like I was dying, paralyzed and going to hell.

        This was my worst nightmare and it’s use should be in the very very very most extreme cases and maybe not even then.

        So, go ahead and ask me for resources. There has been nothing crueler in my life.

      3. In your community there are people who have had the procedure called ECT or electroshock. In the last decade, use has greatly increased, and is used for many reasons now, and offered readily. Used at leading facilities. I am submitting from Oregon, but speak on behalf of my peers, as many cannot. We are showing damages on MRI, EEG, neuro/cognitive testing and SPECT. This is a public health issue that needs to come to light.

        As a result of receiving this untested FDA procedure, patients are now living with traumatic brain injury outcomes, at minimum. Electrical trauma impacts all bodily systems, so there are other issues in addition to the baseline of TBI. This has now been proven in the California courts in a now national device suit, yet facilities are still doing this. ECT also impacts our children, veterans and women in pregnancy. Suits filed against the FDA, and firms interviewing for medical malpractice.

        My opinion is that providers, who are well aware of these poor outcomes, have a duty to warn, protect and not cause harm. There is an oppressive silence around this, as when it comes to light there will be much to account for. Those standing by silently in complicity and collusion are just as responsible. We need these providers that include nurses, to step in to advocate and intercede for these vulnerable patients.

        We are told in consent to expect temporary memory loss to resolve in six weeks and typical anesthesia risks. Their own research reports structural brain changes that result from this. They dare to take this upon themselves, and withhold these known damages? They cannot just suddenly stop doing this now without admitting harm.

        Electrical trauma can extend years out to include ALS and CTE. There is a great betrayal of patient trust. We are betrayed with the initial procedure, and again when we can find little assistance to address our outcomes following. Many would like to see criminal charges levied.

        Very sadly we can find little help in addressing our outcomes of repeated brain injuries that all other TBI patients have at their disposal. Doctors will not address in referrals and testing, as it will implicate peers and facilities, and risk their standings whatever that may be. My peers sometimes commit suicide as a direct result of damages, and they are isolated. We are greatly suffering and need extensive rehabilitation. Our complaints are written off as psychiatric to protect those responsible. Billions involved annually in the U.S. alone from this in cover ups of decades.

        This is trauma pure and simple, not help. Creating temporary euphoria and memory loss for difficulties that led to admission result from brain injury, and is not mental health. There is a two time increase in suicide following ECT secondary to brain injury and isolation in outcomes. Please let others know what is taking place. Others, which may include someone you care about, are at great risk if they are offered this. See, Thank you.

      4. All trauma medicine aware of damages immediate and long term from electrical trauma. Psychiatry dresses up this procedure for billions annually in US alone despite battery of patients. Long term outcomes even according to Dr. Bennett Omalu of the NFL injuries, identifies risk of CTE tied to ECT. This procedure needs to be abolished and providers and facilities made monetarily responsible to damages in patients. Activists working globally to expose this human rights issue. NO ONE has the right to play with people’s life experiences whether they think they are God’s or not.

        1. I’ve had ect’s. It didn’t work for me. And now I don’t remember my three children growing up and nor do I remember my wedding.

      1. See ectjustice, site called Life After ECT, book by Linda Andre called Doctors of Deception, sites, amd site

    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. Have her contact DK law group in CA to see if she qualifies to join national product liability suit tied to ECT devices. This is if she may be interested. Have her attend brain injury support groups as she has had repeated brain injuries. See ectjustice and site Life After ECT. We are working to bring med mal suits now as well.

    2. I have just for some reason learned about Word Press. I post to whatever relates to ECT where attorneys may reference so please bare with me if it does not relate to your post directly. This is how I find attorneys that may be interested in bringing medical malpractice and it keeps me off social. I wanted to leave activism around this and am happy off social, but I want my peers to have medical malpractice suits and cannot drop it. First I want to say:

      There have been Editors of smaller papers nationally posting letters I have sent in with regards to ECT recently. Smaller communities may not have the ties and more caring. Major media will not touch for most part, but smaller papers are willing. You have to give your name and they will call you before printing. May limit you to 250 words, but some are emails so can say more. Go on Google and there is a link to all the small papers in your state and just copy and paste to all. If ambitious go outside to other states asking them to warn the public. Share how you were lied to and harmed. This will also bring in attorneys and make providers fearful to perform I am hoping. So below is for attorneys.

      We have approximately 6 firms hearing from patients for possible medical malpractice claims around this procedure. Brain injuries resulting have been proven in the CA courts in what is now a national product liability suit. Your one constant with all patients is brain injuries. Your material risk of brain injuries is missing from all consents. Physicians are culpable based on their training and this is battery at best. All trauma is based on mechanism. You have a mechanism such as electrical you have an anticipated and known outcome in ALL patients. Your one constant in ALL patients is TBI, though many have ongoing cardiac etc. issues as well. Your experts for primary should be double boarded in psychiatry/neurology, but use mostly trauma experts who cannot refute this. I am interested in helping additional firms with bringing medical malpractice claims around these damages. There are arguments for retroactive possibilities perhaps? The research is available to firms that was used in the product liability suit at your request. We need many firms to help us please as we are greatly suffering and need justice and rehabilitation. My email if you would like to hear from patients around this or see research is We would greatly appreciate your help. Please also see resources on, now owned by the DK law group. Thank you.

    3. Then what too doo , u are saying that don’t too doo this ,this bad.. very very bad , than why not you tell me more safe and good way too remove thise memories…. If you know tell me .

  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.

      2. See ectjustice and site Life After ECT. Every procedure us a traumatic brain injury. Law suits taking place.

  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.

  10. Hi I’ve experienced depression/ocd for more than 10 years now I want to get ect done in hope it can erase a specific memory. I want to know more about the effects it has after treatment if anyone that has had it done can tell me how it has effected them it will be greatly appreciated. As I don’t know what to do as I’ve exhausted all medication CBT options.

  11. My name is stacie holland I need to earse some of my memory to keep my maggier I’m live in fort smith ar.

  12. wow so many people like myself if i could erase maybe the last four years or so that would be a blessing….and some othr memories as well

  13. Anyone considering this treatment like I am, (until reading stories of long standing short term memory loss) try psychedelics first. They don’t harm your brain or destroy your memories. They give you a reset and let you process the memories instead.

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