Efficacy and safety of electroconvulsive therapy in depressive disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Lancet. 2003 Mar 8;361(9360):799-808. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(03)12705-5.


Background: We aimed to review published work for the efficacy and safety of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) with simulated ECT, ECT versus pharmacotherapy, and different forms of ECT for patients with depressive illness.

Methods: We designed a systematic overview and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials and observational studies. We obtained data from the Cochrane Collaboration Depressive Anxiety and Neurosis and Schizophrenia Group Controlled trial registers, Cochrane Controlled Trials register, Biological Abstracts, CINAHL, EMBASE, LILACS, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and SIGLE, reference lists, and specialist textbooks. Our main outcome measures were depressive symptoms, measures of cognitive function, and mortality.

Findings: Meta-analysis of data of short-term efficacy from randomised controlled trials was possible. Real ECT was significantly more effective than simulated ECT (six trials, 256 patients, standardised effect size [SES] -0.91, 95% CI -1.27 to -0.54). Treatment with ECT was significantly more effective than pharmacotherapy (18 trials, 1144 participants, SES -0.80, 95% CI -1.29 to -0.29). Bilateral ECT was more effective than unipolar ECT (22 trials, 1408 participants, SES -0.32, 95% CI -0.46 to -0.19).

Interpretation: ECT is an effective short-term treatment for depression, and is probably more effective than drug therapy. Bilateral ECT is moderately more effective than unilateral ECT, and high dose ECT is more effective than low dose.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Depressive Disorder* / drug therapy
  • Depressive Disorder* / therapy
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy* / methods
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy* / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidepressive Agents