[Maintenance electroconvulsive therapy and treatment of refractory schizophrenia]

M Lévy-Rueff, A Jurgens, H Lôo, J-P Olié, I Amado
L'Encéphale 2008, 34 (5): 526-33

BACKGROUND: Electroconvulsive therapy, a standard treatment in mood disorders, is sometimes also indicated in psychotic disorders, especially in the treatment of refractory schizophrenia. In this instance, maintenance electroconvulsive therapy (M-ECT) can also become a long-term treatment. This paper presents the effects of M-ECT in the treatment of refractory schizophrenia using a retrospective analysis. Previous works showed that electroconvulsive therapy is effective on catatonia, anxiety with somatisation, lack of compliance, opposition, delusions especially with hallucinations and persecution, anorexia, agitation, carelessness, aggressive behaviour and moral pain. It is ineffective on bewilderment, somatic complaints and negative symptoms.

AIM OF THE STUDY: A retrospective analysis of a clinical cohort of patients treated with M-ECT was carried out to determine the specific indications of M-ECT, its effectiveness on clinical symptoms, quality of life, relapse rates and use of medication. Nineteen patients with DSM-IV diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia (n=5), schizophrenia with neurotic symptoms (n=3), disorganized schizophrenia (n=1), hebephrenia (n=3) and schizoaffective disorder (n=8), treated in the department of the University Hospital of Sainte-Anne in Paris, received M-ECT between 1991 and 2005. Seven patients are still under this treatment. Their mean age at the beginning of treatment was 47.5 years with a mean duration of the illness of 24 years. The indication of M-ECT was the increase of acute episodes, an increase of symptoms intensity, the inefficiency or intolerance to pharmacological treatments or an early relapse after ECT discontinuation. All patients had previously been successfully treated by ECT during an acute episode. Each patient received an average of 47 bilateral M-ECT under general anaesthesia at one to five weeks' intervals for a mean period of 43 months. All of them were also treated by antipsychotics; in addition, 30% received mood stabilizers and 10% antidepressants. The dosage of antidepressants and mood stabilizers was reduced during M-ECT treatment, especially in patients with schizoaffective disorder, probably in relation with the effectiveness of ECT on mood symptoms.

RESULTS: During M-ECT, the mean duration of yearly hospitalizations was decreased by 80% and the mean duration of each hospitalization by 40% with a better ability to take part in activities, sometimes even to return home or go back to work. There was also a positive effect on quality of life considering the severity of symptoms and the long psychiatric history of these patients. The possibility to go from a full time hospitalization to a day-care facility or to live in a halfway house can be considered as a huge progress. M-ECT was efficient on mood symptoms, delusions, anorexia, suicidal impetus, anxiety symptoms and increased cooperation and treatment compliance. Efficacy on obsessive compulsive symptoms was less obvious. There was no effect on dissociation and negative symptoms. Relapses essentially occurred after a stressful life event, a too long interval between the M-ECT sessions or, in 50% of the cases, without any obvious etiology. It required a revision of the M-ECT program and, most of the time, an hospitalization for full ECT treatment.

DISCUSSION: There is no consensus on the rate and number of M-ECT as it varies from patient to patient and depends upon the extent of the clinical response and side effects. The discontinuation of M-ECT will depend on the clinical symptoms, compliance and tolerance to ECT. As it is the case with ECT treatment for an acute episode, available evidence suggests that treatment with antipsychotics should continue during the maintenance ECT course.

CONCLUSION: Maintenance electroconvulsive therapy combined with medication may be an efficient alternative to pharmacological treatment alone in refractory schizophrenia. Alternative therapeutical strategies are crucial in this domain, due to the important public health problem it raises. There are few randomised prospective controlled clinical trials regarding this treatment and further clinical investigations are necessary, notably to define standardized criteria for M-ECT programs.

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