Electroconvulsive therapy, hypertensive surge, blood-brain barrier breach, and amnesia: exploring the evidence for a connection

J ECT. 2014 Jun;30(2):160-4. doi: 10.1097/YCT.0000000000000133.


Preclinical and clinical evidence show that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)-induced intraictal surge in blood pressure may result in a small, transient breach in the blood-brain barrier, leading to mild cerebral edema and a possible leach of noxious substances from blood into brain tissues. These changes may impair neuronal functioning and contribute to the mechanisms underlying ECT-induced cognitive deficits. Some but not all clinical data on the subject suggest that blood pressure changes during ECT correlate with indices of cognitive impairment. In animal models, pharmacological manipulations of blood pressure during electroconvulsive shocks attenuate electroconvulsive shock-induced amnestic changes; however, the evidence suggests that antihypertensive mechanisms may not necessarily be involved. Clinical studies involving pre-ECT administration of antihypertensive medications do not provide convincing evidence of benefits. It is concluded that there is insufficient support, at present, for the hypothesis that the hypertensive surge during ECT and the resultant blood-brain barrier breach contribute meaningfully to ECT-induced cognitive deficits. Future research should address the subset of patients who experience pronounced hypertensive changes during ECT, and clinically relevant outcome measures, such as autobiographical memory impairment, should be examined.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia / etiology*
  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / pathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Electroconvulsive Therapy / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / etiology*