Overview

Amnesia refers to the loss of memories, including facts, information, and experiences. While movies and television often depict amnesia as forgetting one’s identity, in real life, people with amnesia, also known as amnestic syndrome, usually retain awareness of who they are. However, they may struggle with learning new information and forming new memories.

Amnesia can be caused by damage to specific areas of the brain responsible for memory processing. Unlike transient global amnesia, which is a temporary memory loss episode, amnesia can be permanent.

There is no specific treatment for amnesia, but addressing the underlying cause can be beneficial. Additionally, there are tips to help enhance memory and provide support for individuals with amnesia and their families.

Symptoms

The two main features of amnesia are:

  • Trouble learning new information.
  • Trouble remembering past events and previously familiar information.

Most people with amnesia have difficulty with short-term memory, leading to an inability to retain new information. Recent memories are more likely to be lost, while more remote or deeply ingrained memories may be spared.

For instance, individuals may recall childhood experiences or the names of past presidents, but they might struggle to name the current president, know the month, or remember their breakfast.

Isolated memory loss does not impact a person’s intelligence, general knowledge, awareness, attention span, judgment, personality, or identity. People with amnesia can still understand written and spoken words and learn various skills like bike riding or playing the piano. They may also be aware that they have a memory disorder.

It’s important to distinguish amnesia from dementia. While dementia often includes memory loss, it also involves other cognitive problems that result in a decline in daily functioning. These problems may encompass difficulties with language, judgment, and visual-spatial skills.

Memory loss is also a common symptom of mild cognitive impairment, which involves memory and other cognitive issues that are less severe than those experienced in dementia.

Additional Symptoms

Depending on the cause of the amnesia, other symptoms may include:

  • False memories that are either completely invented or are real memories misplaced in time.
  • Confusion or disorientation.

When to See a Doctor

Anyone experiencing unexplained memory loss, head injury, or confusion should seek immediate medical attention.

People with amnesia may not know where they are or be able to seek medical care themselves. If someone you know exhibits symptoms of amnesia, make sure to help them get medical attention.

Causes

Typical memory function involves various parts of the brain, and any disease or injury affecting the brain can impact memory.

Amnesia can result from damage to brain structures that form the limbic system, which controls emotions and memories. These structures include the thalamus found deep within the center of the brain and the hippocampal formations located within the temporal lobes of the brain.

Neurological amnesia, caused by brain injury or damage, can be attributed to various factors such as:

  • Stroke
  • Brain inflammation, which may result from a virus infection like herpes simplex virus or an autoimmune reaction to cancer
  • Lack of oxygen in the brain, often due to a heart attack, respiratory distress, or carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Long-term alcohol misuse leading to thiamin deficiency known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome
  • Tumors in areas of the brain controlling memory
  • Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative nerve tissue conditions
  • Seizures
  • Use of certain medicines like benzodiazepines or other sedatives

Concussions resulting from head injuries, whether from car accidents or sports, can lead to confusion and difficulties in remembering new information. This is particularly common during the early stages of recovery. Mild head injuries typically do not cause lasting amnesia, but more severe head injuries may lead to permanent amnesia.

Dissociative amnesia is another rare type of amnesia stemming from emotional shock or trauma. It can occur after being a victim of a violent crime or experiencing other traumatic events. In this disorder, individuals may lose personal memories and information about their lives. The memory loss is usually brief.

Risk Factors

The chances of developing amnesia may increase if you have experienced:

  • Brain surgery, head injury, or trauma
  • Stroke
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Seizures

Complications

Amnesia varies in severity and scope, but even mild amnesia can significantly impact daily activities and quality of life. The syndrome can cause difficulties at work, school, and in social settings.

It may not be possible to recover lost memories. Some individuals with severe memory problems may require supervision or live in a care facility.

Prevention

Since brain damage can be a root cause of amnesia, it is essential to take steps to minimize the risk of brain injury:

  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Wear a helmet when bicycling and a seat belt when driving
  • Seek prompt medical treatment for infections to prevent them from spreading to the brain
  • Get immediate medical attention if symptoms suggest a stroke or brain aneurysm, such as severe headache, numbness on one side of the body, or difficulty moving one side of the body

From Project Semicolon to your inbox

Sign up for free and stay up to date on advancements, health tips, current health topics, and expertise on managing health.

Diagnosis, and Treatment

Amnesia refers to the loss of memories, including facts, information, and experiences. Unlike the portrayal in movies and television, amnesia does not always involve forgetting one’s identity. People with amnesia, also known as amnestic syndrome, usually retain knowledge of who they are but may have difficulty learning new information and forming new memories. The condition can be caused by brain damage, and in some cases, it may be permanent.

While there is no specific treatment for amnesia, addressing the underlying cause can be helpful. Additionally, memory enhancement strategies and support for both individuals with amnesia and their families are essential for coping with the condition.

Symptoms

The two main features of amnesia are:

  • Trouble learning new information.
  • Trouble remembering past events and previously familiar information.

Most people with amnesia experience difficulties with short-term memory, leading to the inability to retain new information. Recent memories are often lost, while more remote or deeply ingrained memories may be preserved. The condition does not affect a person’s intelligence, general knowledge, awareness, attention span, judgment, personality, or identity. Individuals with amnesia can typically understand written and spoken words and may be able to learn certain skills.

Causes

Amnesia can result from damage to brain structures responsible for memory processing. Brain injuries, strokes, brain inflammation, lack of oxygen to the brain, long-term alcohol misuse, tumors in memory-controlling areas of the brain, Alzheimer’s disease, seizures, and certain medications are potential causes of amnesia. Additionally, emotional shock or trauma can lead to a rare type of amnesia known as dissociative amnesia, where people may lose personal memories and information about their lives.

Diagnosis

A comprehensive evaluation is necessary to diagnose amnesia and differentiate it from other causes of memory loss like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. A medical history, physical examination, cognitive tests, and diagnostic tests such as imaging studies and EEG may be conducted to assess the extent and underlying cause of the memory loss.

Treatment

Treatment for amnesia primarily focuses on strategies to cope with memory problems and addressing the underlying condition causing amnesia. Occupational therapy, memory training, technological assistance, and, in specific cases, medications or supplements may be utilized to help individuals with amnesia manage their condition.

Coping and Support

Living with amnesia can be challenging for both individuals with memory loss and their family and friends. Support groups and resources provided by organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association and the Brain Injury Association of America can be beneficial in understanding and coping with amnesia.

Preparing for Your Appointment

Before your appointment, it’s essential to write down any unusual symptoms, major stresses, medications, and questions you may have for your healthcare provider. You may be referred to a neurologist for further evaluation.

Conclusion

Amnesia is a complex condition that requires a thorough evaluation to determine its extent and cause. While there is no cure, appropriate strategies and support can help individuals with amnesia and their loved ones manage the challenges associated with the condition.

Find Treatment

Your impact doubles

This month, your gift has the power to change lives. By supporting Project Semicolon, you're making sure no one ever has to struggle alone. Your gift by July 1st will be matched and have twice the impact on mental health, and suicide prevention.