Amnesia is when an individual has trouble or can no longer memorize or recall information that is stored in their memory. Despite it being a popular theme in movies and books, it is actually quite a rare condition. It is important to note that being a little forgetful or spacey is not necessarily the same as having amnesia. Amnesia usually refers to the large scale loss of memories that should not have been forgotten otherwise, such as important life milestones, memorable events, key people in their lives and vital facts that they have learnt or come across. Individuals who suffer amnesia however, retain their motor skills as well as any knowledge of their own identity.
Amnesia can be caused by damage to the areas of the brain that are crucial for memory processing. Unlike temporary episodes of memory loss, amnesia can be permanent. There’s no specific treatment for amnesia but there are techniques that are used to enhance memory and psychological support that helps victims and their families cope. There are numerous different types of amnesia, listed below are a few:
Retrograde amnesia: The individual finds it difficult or has trouble remembering events that occurred before the trauma that caused the amnesia, but can remember what happens after it.
Anterograde amnesia: In a way, this is like the opposite of retrograde amnesia. Here, the person cannot remember new information. Things that happened recently that should be stored in short term memory disappear and this usually results from some kind of brain trauma. For example, a blow to the head may result in the person remembering data and events that happened before the injury, but become forgetful of new events that happens afterwards.
Transient global amnesia: This is a temporary condition in which all memory is lost. It is usually very rare and more likely to be found in older adults with vascular diseases.
Childhood amnesia: The person cannot recall events from early childhood possibly due to a language development problem or some areas of the brain not fully maturing during childhood.
How Amnesia Develops
Normal memory functions involve many parts of the brain. Any disease or injury that affects the brain can also interfere with memory. Below are a few known causes and risk factors that might make you susceptible to amnesia:
- Brain inflammation as a result of a viral infection.
- Tumors in areas of the brain that control memory.
- Lack of adequate oxygen in the brain.
- Degenerative brain disease.
- Long term alcohol or substance abuse.
- Certain medications such as benzodiazepines.
- Brain surgery, head injury or trauma.
What are the Signs and Symptoms ?
It is important to realize that amnesia is different from dementia, and while dementia may include memory loss, it also involves other important cognitive problems that may affect a patient’s ability to go about their day.
The following are the common and main symptoms of amnesia:
- The ability to learn new information is impaired.
- Problems remembering past events and previously familiar information.
- False memories may either be completely invented or consist of real memories misplaced in time (confabulation).
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Having trouble recognizing faces or locations.
Diagnosis of Amnesia
Prior to diagnosing amnesia, the doctor will first need to rule out any other possible causes of memory loss, including but not limited to dementia, depression or a brain tumor. The doctor will usually go through the following diagnostic steps:
- Medical history – The doctor will begin by taking a detailed medical history, which may be a problem if the patient has difficulty with memory and so a family member may be asked to be present.
- Physical exam – this may include a neurological exam to check for reflexes, sensory function, balance and any other physiological aspects of the brain and nervous system.
- Cognitive tests – The doctor may also test the patients thinking, judgment, and recent long- term memory. This memory evaluation can help determine the extent of memory loss and insights about what kind of help the person needs.
- Lab tests – The doctor may request for lab tests such as an MRI and CT scan (to check for brain damage or abnormalities), blood tests (to reveal any infections or nutritional deficiencies) and an electroencephalogram(checking for presence of seizure activity).
How to Cope With Amnesia
Treatment for amnesia focuses on the techniques and strategies to help make up for the memory problems as well as addressing any underlying diseases that may be causing the amnesia. Some of these strategies include “occupational therapy” which is directed towards working to replace what was lost.
Technological assistance can also come to play in managing amnesia. This involves using smart technology to cope such as phones, tablet etc to help the patient record and keep important events or information. In addition, Medication or supplements can be used by doctors to help the patient.
Worthy of note is the important roles family and friends play in the management of amnesia. Patients suffering from amnesia will need the support, understanding and patience of their family members and friends as they work towards the recovery or coping with their lost memories.