Sydney researchers say a new form of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) using short pulses of electricity, not sustained ones, is effective in treating people suffering depression.
The ECT technique was devised in 1937 and extensively used around the world until it was discredited in the 1970s.
But the treatment was refined and again was being used from the mid-1990s in the United States and other countries.
Scientists at Australia's University of New South Wales (UNSW) announced on Wednesday they had further refined the technique and deduced short-term pulses of electric shocks to the brain are just as effective as longer shocks, which are currently the norm.
ECT is seen as a last resort when conventional treatments and medications don't work on severely depressed people.
"This new treatment, which is slowly coming into clinical practice in Australia, is one of the most significant developments in the clinical treatment of severe depression in the past two decades," said UNSW Professor of Psychiatry Colleen Loo.
"Our analysis of the existing trial data showed that ultra- brief stimulation significantly lessened the potential for the destruction of memories formed prior to ECT, reduced the difficulty of recalling and learning new information after ECT and was almost as effective as the standard ECT treatment."
ECT delivers a finely controlled electric current to the brain' s prefrontal cortex, an area that is underactive in people with depression.
The current is delivered via electrodes on a patient's scalp while the patient is under general anesthesia.
Before it was abandoned in the 1970s there were many lawsuits across the world as some patients were left with little memories and mental functions due to over-intensive delivery of electric shocks to their brains.
It is estimated that up to 10,000 Australians with severe depression and who have not responded to first line treatments, such as medication, could benefit from the new treatment, Professor Loo said.
"We are still working hard to change the broader medical profession's and general public's perception of ECT, which has struggled to shake off the tarnished image given to it by popular movies such as the 1975 film 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'," Professor Loo said.
Trials involved more than 600 patients and the study was conducted in partnership with the Institute of Mental Health, Singapore.