New therapy helping patients deal with depression

Electroconvulsive therapy has shown life-changing results

By Tera Roberson - Special Projects Producer

HOUSTON- - For Karen, depression loomed over her life like a dark cloud.

"That darkness is so profound and so all-encompassing that there's no way to really describe it,” said Karen, who requested that her last name not be used for this story. 

It started in her youth, and after a back injury nearly 20 years ago, Karen says her depression intensified.

“Every day was just a struggle to be alive," she said. "I didn't do activities of daily living. I just wanted to be dead all the time.”

She tried several medications over the years, at least six different ones she can remember.

"They would work for a couple or three months maybe," Karen said. "Towards the end of that period of time, nothing was working at all. Didn't matter what medication I took, it didn't work.”

Then, last August, her doctor told her about a treatment being offered at UT Health’s Harris County Psychiatric Center.

The treatment is called electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT.

It's described as a natural way to cure "treatment resistant" depression in patients like Karen. 

Dr. Salih Salek heads up the ECT Department at UTHealth and performs ECT. 
“What we do is, basically, we induce seizures by giving electrical stimulus,” Salek said.
“Seizures have been shown to be effective in treating some of the psychiatric problems for a long while.”

Salek says the procedure is painless. Patients are under anesthesia, as doctors use a device to send a signal to the brain to induce the seizure.

“We don't know how the mechanism works, but there are some hypotheses that it hits several neurotransmitters in the brain," Salek said. "It's like flushing the toxic waste from the brain, and resetting the brain."

For the best results, patients undergo ECT three times a week for up to 12 weeks.

Some—like Karen—see life-changing results almost immediately. 

“From the very first treatment, I had positive results," Karen said. "I did not expect that in any way at all."

Besides slight headaches and trouble remembering words from time to time, Karen says ECT saved her life.

“I'm Nana again," she said with pride. "I'm washing dishes, I'm washing clothes. I'm caring for my family again. I'm cooking again. I love to cook, and I stopped. I wasn't able to do that. So, I'm back. I'm back."

Doctors have been using electroconvulsive therapy for 80 years.

For more information on UTHealth’s ECT Department, visit https://hcpc.uth.edu/.

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