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Measuring Retrograde Autobiographical Amnesia Following Electroconvulsive Therapy: Historical Perspective and Current Issues

Semkovska, Maria PhD; McLoughlin, Declan M. MD, PhD

doi: 10.1097/YCT.0b013e318279c2c9

Retrograde amnesia following electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a major concern for both patients and clinicians. In contemporary ECT research, retrograde autobiographical amnesia (RAA) is commonly measured with instruments assessing autobiographical memory (AM) consistency over time. However, normal AM recall loses in consistency with the passage of time, and time has a differential effect on stability of personal memories. In addition, experiencing depression is associated with a decreased ability to recall specific AMs, and this difficulty may persist in the euthymic phase of recurrent depression. Despite these scientific facts, relatively few attempts have been made to accurately measure the specific effect of ECT on AM independent of both normal and mood-associated forgetting over time. This major gap in our knowledge prevents us at present from objectively quantifying the nature and extent of RAA associated with ECT. In turn, this hinders our identifying and implementing strategies for prevention or remediation of AM deficits. The present article aims to provide an up-to-date review and historical perspective of this major methodological conundrum for ECT research, highlight current issues in retrograde amnesia assessment following ECT, and propose directions for future studies. In conclusion, we suggest methods to reliably and specifically measure the extent and progression over time of ECT-associated RAA independently from persistent depressive symptoms’ contribution and normal loss in AM consistency over time.

From the Department of Psychiatry and Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin, St Patrick’s University Hospital, Dublin, Ireland.

Received for publication May 28, 2012; accepted October 17, 2012.

Reprints: Declan M. McLoughlin, MD, PhD, Department of Psychiatry Trinity College Dublin, St Patrick’s University Hospital, James’s St, Dublin 8, Ireland (e-mail:

This work was supported by the Health Research Board (grant TRA/2007/5) and the St Patrick’s Hospital Foundation.

The authors have no conflicts of interest or financial disclosures to report.

© 2013 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins