Objective cognitive performance associated with electroconvulsive therapy for depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Sep 15;68(6):568-77. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.06.009. Epub 2010 Jul 31.


Background: Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is the most acutely effective treatment for depression, but is limited by cognitive side effects. However, research on their persistence, severity, and pattern is inconsistent. We aimed to quantify ECT-associated cognitive changes, specify their pattern, and determine progression.

Methods: MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycArticles, PsychINFO, PsychLIT, and reference lists were systematically searched through January 2009. We included all independent, within-subjects design studies of depressed patients receiving ECT where cognition was assessed using standardized tests. Main outcome was change in performance after ECT relative to pretreatment scores with respect to delay between finishing ECT and cognitive testing. We explored potential moderators' influence, e.g., electrode placement, stimulus waveform.

Results: Twenty-four cognitive variables (84 studies, 2981 patients) were meta-analyzed. No standardized retrograde amnesia tests were identified. Significant decreases in cognitive performance were observed 0 to 3 days after ECT in 72% of variables: effect sizes (ES) ranging from -1.10 (95% confidence interval [CI], -1.53 to -.67) to -.21 (95% CI, -.40 to .01). Four to 15 days post-ECT, all but one CI included zero or showed positive ES. No negative ES were observed after 15 days, with 57% of variables showing positive ES, ranging from .35 (95% CI, .07-.63) to .75 (95% CI, .43-1.08). Moderators did not influence cognitive outcomes after 3 days post-ECT.

Conclusions: Cognitive abnormalities associated with ECT are mainly limited to the first 3 days posttreatment. Pretreatment functioning levels are subsequently recovered. After 15 days, processing speed, working memory, anterograde memory, and some aspects of executive function improve beyond baseline levels.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cognition*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy*
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance*