Amnesia: It’s not just a blow on the head that can erase your memory

Amnesia brain

Last Updated June 17th, 2019

What is amnesia?

A temporary or permanent memory loss is called amnesia.  Head and brain injuries, drugs side effects, alcohol consumption, as well as degenerative brain disease may be some of the causes.  There are several types of amnesia.  Some of the symptoms may include an inability to learn anything new, as well as forgetting events from the past.

A mild case of amnesia may involve a person unable to recall a concussion to the head as well as the recovery, but all other past and present memory remain intact.  This may occur as the brain takes some time to process and develop memories.  It should be noted that dementia is completely different from amnesia.  A diagnosis of dementia is made when there is memory loss associated with cognitive impairment.  Whereas in the case of amnesia, there is a memory loss with no associated cognitive impairment.

Facts on amnesia

  • An inability to learn anything new or recall old memories is considered to be amnesia.
  • Confusion and uncoordinated movements may be associated with amnesia.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff’s psychosis is a type of amnesia caused by alcohol abuse.
  • Many factors can contribute to amnesia including traumatic experiences and brain injury.

Types of amnesia

Anterograde amnesia

This type of amnesia causes a person to not remember new information such as events that occurred recently.  During this phase the information that has to be collected into short-term memory vanishes.  Brain trauma is considered to be the main cause.  During this phase, the person may forget the most recent trauma caused to the brain but can remember older events before the injury.

Retrograde amnesia

This type of amnesia is generally the opposite of anterograde amnesia.  Here the person forgets the events before a brain trauma and can remember the events after the trauma.  In a very rare case, both retrograde and anterograde amnesia can affect a person together.

Transient global amnesia

This is a rare type of amnesia and generally affects older adults suffering from vascular disease.  Here a person may be affected with the temporary loss of all memory.  There are also some severe cases where there may be difficulty forming new memories.

Traumatic amnesia

As indicated in the name, this type of amnesia is caused when there is a hard blow to the head.  A person may experience this type of amnesia during a car accident, which may lead to loss of consciousness or even coma.  This type of amnesia is generally temporary, but the temporary phase depends on how severe the injury is.

Wernicke-Korsakoff’s psychosis

Long-term alcohol abuse is believed to be the cause of this progressive memory loss that worsens over time.  The symptoms include neurological problems associated with loss of feeling in the toes and fingers.  Another cause for this is related to malnutrition caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency.

Hysterical (fugue or dissociative) amnesia

It is a rare form of amnesia where a person may forget the past as well as the identity.  You may wake up one morning and may not recognize your own face in the mirror.  You would become completely blank and not know what to do.  You may not even remember the basic activities of even brushing the teeth.  It is believed that this may occur when an event occurs and the mind is not able to cope with it.  The person may regain the memory back suddenly which may happen in a few hours or even a few days.  It is believed that the memory of the shocking event may never return completely.

Childhood amnesia (infantile amnesia)

It is not considered to be a serious type of amnesia.  It refers to a person not able to recall the events occurred during childhood.  This is caused when there is a developmental problem during early childhood.  Since the brain is not fully developed, the child may face problems with language and memory problems early in childhood.  Due to this reason, memories related to early childhood becomes vague.

Posthypnotic amnesia

This is related to hypnosis where a person is unable to recall events that occurred during hypnosis.

Source amnesia

During this amnesia, the person is able to recollect certain information but is not able to find the source of the information, which means the person does not know from where the information originated.

Blackout phenomenon

This occurs when a person indulges in binge drinking.  The person may not remember the period during the binge.

Prosopamnesia

It is a rare type where a person does not remember faces and places.

What are the classic symptoms of this condition?

As discussed earlier, symptoms may include problems with short-term memory and the inability to retain new information.  Memories that are most recent are likely to be lost, whereas established memories may be spared.  It can so happen that a person may remember several sweet memories of the childhood but is unable to even remember what was today’s breakfast or which day it is at present.

The bitter fact is that a person affected by amnesia can understand that he or she is affected with a memory disorder, but cannot help.  It should be noted that this temporary memory loss may not affect a person’s intelligence, personality, general knowledge, attention span, awareness, etc.

They can even perform complex skills like playing the piano or riding a bike.  It should be noted that amnesia and dementia may be similar with respect to memory loss, but there is a difference with respect to cognition.  The person affected from dementia would exhibit symptoms of impaired cognition, but this is not true in the case of amnesia.

Some of the common symptoms are discussed below:

  • It affects a person from learning new information.
  • The ability to remember previously familiar events becomes impaired.
  • A phenomenon of confabulation may occur such as false memories may be invented or real memories become misplaced in time.
  • Often leads to confusion or disorientation.
  • Unable to recognize people or locations.

Other causes of amnesia

It is important for the brain to function normally to have a sound memory.  Various parts of the brain are involved to maintain the normal functioning of the memory.  Normal memory function involves many parts of the brain.  The functioning of the memory may be impaired when the brain is affected by any disease or injury.

It is believed that when there is damage to the limbic system, which is responsible for controlling memories and emotions, it leads to amnesia.  The limbic system includes the deep part of the brain called the thalamus and the hippocampal formations situated in the temporal lobes of the brain.  Neurological amnesia is caused when there is brain damage.  Some of the examples of neurological amnesia include:

  • Encephalitis (inflammation in the brain).
  • A limited supply of oxygen to the brain due to carbon monoxide poisoning as well as heart attack and respiratory distress.
  • A Wernicke-korsakoff syndrome is caused due to vitamin B1 deficiency from long-term alcohol use.
  • Alzheimer disease and dementia called as a degenerative brain disease.

It is common for a person to have a minor head injury during sports or other outdoor activities, and may cause a mild case of amnesia, and does not last long.  A more severe type of head injury such as concussion that can occur during a car accident can lead to a more severe type of amnesia and the effects may last longer and can even become permanent.  Another type of amnesia may affect a person due to psychological stress such as emotional shock or trauma.  This is called dissociative (psychogenic) amnesia.  This affects a person briefly and may experience a loss of personal memories.

What are the complications of amnesia?

The severity and the scope of amnesia may vary from person to person, but it is hard to digest that even a mild case of amnesia can affect the quality of life in a big way.  It is definitely going to impact your personal and professional life drastically.  There is a good chance of recovery, but it is not guaranteed.  A person affected by a severe type of amnesia may require one on one care and may have to reside at a supervised facility due to the occurrence of hallucinations and other memory problems.

Amnesia: What is the scope of getting better?

To be frank there is not much that can be done apart from some psychological help.  The treatment mainly depends on the severity and scope of amnesia.  Patients may receive some assistive technology devices to stay organized and stay updated.  Unfortunately, there is only a 50% chance of recovery depending on the severity.

People affected with a severe type of amnesia may require 24/7 supervision.  Minimizing the risk of developing amnesia seems to be the best chance we have.  Try to avoid regular drugs consumption for minor illness and totally avoid alcohol.  Also protect your head from injuries during sports, driving, or outdoor activities.  It is also advised to take prompt treatment when affected by an infection, as this may also lead to damage to the brain leading to amnesia.

Can you prevent the onset of amnesia?

Few healthy habits can be followed to reduce the risk of memory loss and these include:

  • Avoid alcohols or at least keep it to minimal.
  • Try to protect your head during any sports activities or while driving to avoid head injuries.
  • Try to keep yourself mentally active throughout your life by playing mentally challenging games, reading books, and exploring places.
  • Try to stay physically active.
  • Eat a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat proteins.
  • Keep yourself hydrated.

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