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Amnesia Fast Facts

The amnesia common in movies and TV shows, in which sufferers forget their own identities and life histories, almost never happens in real life. Amnesia sufferers may, however, have trouble remembering some events or information that they knew before the onset of the amnesia.

In some cases, amnesia sufferers may have trouble forming new memories after the onset of the amnesia.

Dissociative amnesia, in which memory loss is triggered by traumatic or stressful experiences, affects an estimated 1% of American men and 2.5% of American women. Amnesia may also be caused by a head injury, stroke, brain tumors, brain inflammation, alcohol abuse, or other physical causes.

The amnesia common in movies and TV shows, in which sufferers forget their own identities and life histories, almost never happens in real life.

What is Amnesia?

Amnesia, also called amnestic syndrome, is a condition in which the patient experiences memory loss. The condition may have a physical cause, such as an injury, infection, or other trauma that impairs brain function. Amnesia may also stem from a psychological cause, such as a traumatic experience that serves as a trigger for the loss of memory.

Some types of amnesia, depending on their cause, can be temporary, and the patient will eventually regain lost memories or the ability to create new memories. In other cases, especially where the amnesia is caused by physical damage to the brain, the memory loss may be permanent.

Amnesia is different from dementia. Dementia patients often experience memory loss, but they also suffer from other cognitive problems that are usually not present in cases of amnesia.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of amnesia include:

  • Inability to recall information, events, people, and/or experiences.
  • Difficulty recalling past events that occurred before the beginning of the amnesia. This is referred to as retrograde amnesia.
  • Difficulty remembering new information or events that occur after the beginning of the amnesia. This is called anterograde amnesia.
  • “Memories” of events that didn’t happen, or confusion about when actual events occurred.
  • General confusion.

Dissociative Amnesia

Dissociative amnesia caused by traumatic events may take several different forms, including:

  • Generalized amnesia. In these very rare cases, patients forget everything about themselves, including their identities and life histories.
  • Localized amnesia. In these cases, patients are unable to recall a specific period of time or a specific event. Often, the area of amnesia coincides with the experience that triggered the memory loss.
  • Selective amnesia. In this case, patients forget only some parts of a specific time period or event.
  • Systematized amnesia. Here, the patient loses a specific type of information, such as memories of a particular person.
  • Continuous amnesia. In this case, patients are unable to form new memories.
  • Dissociative fugue. These cases involve generalized amnesia, and the patient leaves his or her previous routine after losing memories of his or her identity. In extreme cases, the patient may wander to a new location and start a new life.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

What Causes Amnesia?

Amnesia can be caused by an injury, disease, infection, or trauma that damages the parts of the brain that control memory. These parts of the brain include the thalamus, amygdala, and the hippocampus; amnesia caused by damage to these structures is called neurological amnesia.

Some potential causes of neurological amnesia include:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Encephalitis
  • Brain tumors
  • Seizures
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Head injury or concussion
  • Brain surgery

Some common triggers for dissociative amnesia include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse and rape
  • Violent crime
  • Combat
  • Death of a loved one
  • Financial stress
  • Interpersonal conflict

Amnesia can occur when someone experiences one or more of these triggers directly, or it may occur even to witnesses of traumatic events.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Is Amnesia Hereditary?

Most types of amnesia, both neurological and dissociative, are caused by injury, disease, or external factors. Because memory loss stems from some external event acting upon the brain’s memory centers, it would seem there is no obvious link between family history and the risk of developing amnesia. However, there is evidence that some people may inherit a tendency to develop dissociative amnesia when exposed to traumatic experiences.

Researchers have identified a particular gene variation that seems to make people more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression after experiencing a traumatic event. The results of one study also suggested the gene may increase the risk of trauma-associated memory loss, as well.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How is Amnesia Detected?

Many of the causes of amnesia result in sudden memory loss, and there are no recognizable signs that precede the memory problems. The underlying cause, however, may be a disease, injury, or event that can lead to long-term brain damage or even death, so early signs of these problems shouldn’t be ignored.

  • An infection anywhere in your body can spread to your brain and cause, among other things, memory loss. Treat all infections promptly.
  • A sudden, severe headache may be a sign of a stroke or brain aneurysm. Other signs include paralysis or weakness on one side of the body.
  • Seizures can also be an early sign of a problem that can lead to memory loss.

Amnesia differs from normal age-related forgetfulness and also from Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.

Early signs of dementia include:

  • Problems with problem-solving, language, speech, and reasoning. These cognition problems usually don’t occur in cases of amnesia.
  • Marked changes in behavior or personality. Depending on the cause, these changes can be a part of the amnestic syndrome, but in cases of dementia, they become profound over time.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How is Amnesia Diagnosed?

The diagnostic process for amnesia includes an effort to identify or rule out neurological problems that might be causing memory loss.

  • Medical history. The doctor will ask questions about the nature of the memory loss, including when it began, whether it has changed over time, and whether there are other cognitive symptoms that have occurred at the same time. He or she will look for signs of neurological or psychological triggers, as well as a possible family history of related conditions.
  • Physical exam. The physical exam will include tests of neurological function, including reflexes, balance, strength, vision, and hearing.
  • Cognitive exam. This exam will include tests of logic, reasoning, and judgment, as well as short- and long-term memory.
  • Laboratory tests. Blood tests will look for signs of infection, vitamin deficiencies, drug abuse, and other blood chemistry abnormalities.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG). This test monitors your brain’s electrical activity and can help to detect abnormalities in brain function.
  • Imaging tests. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans can detect problems such as brain tumors, bleeding, swelling, and brain damage.

If the problem seems to be dissociative amnesia, the doctor will compare symptoms to the diagnostic requirements for that disorder:

  • The memory loss affects the recall of important information and is more severe than typical forgetfulness.
  • The memory loss interferes with daily functioning and/or causes significant distress to the patient.
  • The memory loss can’t be explained by other neurological or psychiatric disorders.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How is Amnesia Treated?

Treatment for neurological amnesia may include:

  • Occupational therapy. The therapy may focus on recovering lost memories, building new memories, and developing strategies for countering on-going memory loss.
  • Dietary supplements. There are currently no drug-based treatments for amnesia, but memory loss associated with alcoholism is sometimes caused by a deficiency of thiamin (vitamin B1). In this case, B1 supplements may help.
  • Memory aids. Organizers, calendars, photographs, and technological reminder systems can help a sufferer to function.

Treatment for dissociative amnesia can include:

  • Psychotherapy. Sessions with a professional therapist can help the sufferer to address the traumatic source of amnesia and learn to cope with its effects.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This type of psychotherapy helps the sufferer to develop strategies to counter harmful thoughts and behaviors.
  • Hypnosis. The goal of clinical hypnosis is to help the sufferer, through relaxation techniques, possibly recover lost memories and stop ongoing memory loss.
  • Meditation and alternative therapies.
  • Medication. Medications may be used to treat depression or anxiety if they are present in conjunction with the amnesia.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Does Amnesia Progress?

Some types of amnesia can be temporary, and all the sufferer’s memories are eventually restored. One type of brief amnestic syndrome, called global transient amnesia, often resolves itself within a day or less.

Types of amnesia caused by brain damage, however, are more likely to be permanent. When memory loss is profound and permanent, the sufferer may need long-term care and/or supervision.

Dissociative amnesia can sometimes resolve quickly, and the sufferer is able to regain lost memories. In other cases, memory loss may be permanent. The likelihood of a good outcome often depends on whether or not the sufferer can successfully deal with the traumatic circumstances that triggered the amnesia.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

How Do I Prevent Amnesia?

There is no known way to directly prevent the onset of amnesia. The best strategy for prevention of memory loss is to prevent the situations that cause memory loss:

  • Treat infections promptly.
  • Follow safety rules when engaging in activities where there is a risk of head injury. Always wear a seat belt while driving or riding in a vehicle.
  • Don’t abuse alcohol.
  • Be alert to warning signs of a stroke.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Amnesia Caregiver Tips

If your loved one suffers from amnesia, coping with the disorder’s effects can lead to frustration, confusion, and even depression. Keep these tips in mind in order to best support your loved one and maintain your own mental health.

  • Accompany your loved one to all medical appointments. Because of the very nature of amnesia, you might be better equipped than your loved one to answer questions and retain medical advice.
  • Provide a safe, secure, stress-free environment in which your loved one will have the best chance of recovery.
  • Help your loved one with reminder systems, organization, and any other technique that will help with daily functioning during the recovery period.
  • Take advantage of other family members, friends, and your community to care for your loved one. Don’t try to take on the entire responsibility for caregiving by yourself.
  • Seek out a support group. It can be very helpful to be able to talk to others who are in your situation.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Amnesia Brain Science

Researchers are working to understand the neurology of amnesia, hoping that a better understanding of why the condition occurs at the cellular level could lead to more effective techniques for treating and reversing memory loss. Some scientists believe that amnesia is caused by cell damage that prevents memories from being stored in the brain. Others believe that memories continue to be stored, but that some neurological problem prevents the amnesiac from accessing the stored memories.

Many research projects are aimed at pinpointing the causes of amnesia, including:

  • One study has modified memory-storing nerve cells in mice to make the cells sensitive to light. The scientists then used light to try to artificially recall the mice’s memories. The experiment helped scientists to understand the difference between the memory-formation, memory-storage, and memory recall mechanisms in the rodents’ brains.
  • Another study focused on the question of how a person’s awareness of the recording of a fact in their memory plays a role in the ability to recall that fact later. The study seemed to show that participants were better able to successfully record a fact when they knew that they were being asked to form a new memory.

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

Amnesia Research

Scientists are working on several research projects to expand on what is known about Amnesia. The research will improve knowledge about the factors that increase the risk for Amnesia, as well as the causes, and best treatments and cures, and will aid people living with Amnesia and their caregivers.

We are currently gathering the information required to support projects such as Testing Ramipril to Prevent Memory Loss in People With Glioblastoma, and Study of Tolerability, Safety, and Efficacy of Sensory Stimulation at Multiple Dose Levels to Improve Brain Function (Etude Study), and Targeted Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to Improve Hippocampal-dependent Declarative Memory Abilities

*The medical information we gather and publish is vetted and intended to be up to date, accurate and express a spectrum of recognized scientific and medical points of view. The information comes from a nucleus of informed scientists, medical doctors, peer-reviewed scientific journals and the National Institute of Health. Please note, differing points of view among scientists and physicians are common. Every effort is employed to ensure the accuracy of these different points of view. That notwithstanding, it is incumbent on persons using this information to consult with his/her physician before reaching any conclusions. Our medical information and publications are not intended to be a substitute for consultation with one’s physician.

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