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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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False Memory and ECT

Q. What is the connection (if any) between false memory syndrome and ECT?

A. I am not aware of any such connection. So-called false memory syndrome (FMS) is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but a term often applied to distorted memories associated with actual or imagined trauma. FMS is sometimes also used to describe the implanted memories attributed to the actions of incompetent or over-zealous therapists, working with alleged abuse victims.

In the latter case, the notion is that FMS stems from the therapist's suggesting a history of sexual or physical abuse to the patient, who then suddenly seems to recover memories of such abuse, even though there is no objective evidence that abuse occurred. This whole area is fraught with intense controversy, even within the mental health field. I am not aware of any fundamental connection between FMS and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

The only connection I can imagine is that ECT is often associated with transient (and usually mild) memory impairment, mainly for memories surrounding the actual ECT and for a few weeks after the procedure. The mechanism for this ECT--related memory impairment is not precisely known, but probably has to do with brain processes underlying the formation and storage of memory traces; e.g., memory consolidation and the transfer of memory from short to long-term storage areas. The memory distortions related to FMS probably have more to do with psychological defense mechanisms (such as repression, dissociation, and denial), as well as with a tendency even in normal, non-traumatized people to falsely recall or recognize events that never happened.

False recall in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder may also be related to long-standing anxious traits. For a review of FMS, see the article by Zoellner et al, in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology August 2000, pp. 517-24. For more on memory problems and ECT, see the Handbook of ECT, by Dr. Charles Kellner et al (American Psychiatric Press, 1997).

July 2001

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