Over the past few years electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has come under increased scrutiny in the UK, with the first systematic review of patients' experiences and new national guidelines. Our aim in this article is to translate recent and sometimes confusing research and policy statements into practical guidance that benefits patients. We examined the evidence on the permanent memory and cognitive effects of ECT, with a focus on delineating their nature, understanding how ECT may cause them, informing prospective patients about them, and assessing their impact on former patients. We describe a simple and effective method for assessing retrograde amnesia. Data do not exist at this time to confirm the mechanisms by which ECT exerts its adverse effects, but clinicians should fully inform patients of the possible permanent adverse effects of the treatment, which include amnesia, memory disability and cognitive disability, and should provide follow-up testing using relevant instruments.