Amnesia is often presented quite dramatically in novels, movies, and television programs. However, it is really rather rare that a person will totally lose his sense of self or all of his memories. Most forms of amnesia and other memory losses are related to certain memories only and involve partial and temporary inability to remember life experiences. In some ways, amnesia has been a blessing in disguise, because while studying its effects on patients, much has been discovered about how the mind and the memory processes work. Many different things can cause amnesia, but the good news is that there are several dietary and lifestyle choices we can make that will lessen our chances of succumbing to amnesia or enable us to recover from it more quickly if it should occur. Please join me for a basic overview of what amnesia is, how and why it occurs, and what can be done to treat or prevent this condition.
What is Amnesia?
Amnesia is a memory disorder that involves partial or total loss of memory that can be either temporary or permanent. The word is taken from the Greek, and literally means “not to recall.” Individuals who suffer from amnesia are known as “amnesiacs.” Another name for amnesia is amnestic syndrome. Many people think of a person who has lost their identity and all of their previous memories when they hear the term amnesia. In truth, this form of the condition, exhibiting a total loss of memory, is very rare, and the vast majority of amnesia cases involve varied degrees of memory loss that usually touch only certain parts of the brain.
Amnesia is just one of several forms of memory loss, such as those associated with aging or Alzheimer’s Disease. However, unlike some other types of memory disorders that develop slowly and are progressive, amnesia can occur very suddenly. As we will see in more detail below, it is often the result of a brain injury such as that sustained in an automobile accident or other severe trauma. Many cases of amnesia are also caused by drug / alcohol abuse and exposure to other toxic chemicals, or as the result of conditions, such as a stroke for example, that block sufficient blood supply to the brain.
Amnesia can afflict any one of any age, but it is more likely to be most severe in the elderly, and certain forms are found slightly more often in women than in men. Researchers have discovered that the way the brain stores, processes, and recalls memories is much more complex than once thought. Most amnesiacs have more trouble learning new information and establishing new memories than they do recalling the past. Discoveries such as this have caused scientists to question their theories of memory, and opened the door to a much better understanding of all facets of brain function.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Amnesia?
There are many different types of amnesia, so the signs that may point to its presence can vary greatly depending on the cause and form of amnesia. All forms of memory disorder involve one or more types of memory:
- Immediate: This involves the ability to recall events that occurred only a few seconds ago.
- Short-term: Retention of information that was gleaned anywhere from a few minutes ago up to several hours or days ago.
- Long-term: This involves memories of the distant past.
Some amnesia patients will suffer from a combination of these three, or from only one. As they get better, some memory may return, but in some cases, certain forms will never be recovered. People with long-term memory disorders can often be very sharp about present happenings, but may not be able to recall any events in their life from years past. In contrast, short-term memory failure makes it difficult for patients to remember things on an every day basis, but they may be able to clearly recall their childhood and other remote memories.
Amnesia can be classified in several different ways. Some of the most common labels are:
- Anterograde: This is a sudden form of amnesia that is associated with trauma to the brain. It most often causes a loss of short-term memory and difficulty retaining new information. Patients typically can remember events of the past, but have a hard time with memories placed after the traumatic event.
- Retrograde: This is the flip side of anterograde amnesia, and is also usually caused by brain trauma. Patients do well with memories after the traumatic event, but have difficulty with memories of previously familiar things that occurred before the trauma.
- Transient global amnesia: This type of amnesia affects all forms of memory, and is often the result of a temporary condition that blocks the blood supply to the brain. Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) are one of the most common causes of transient global amnesia. Patients may become thoroughly confused, disoriented, and frightened while the amnesia affects them, but the good news is that this form of amnesia is usually only temporary, and memory is typically fully restored. Amnesia of this sort can last from a few hours up to a day or two in extreme cases.
- Dissociative amnesia: Also known as psychogenic amnesia, this is caused by severe emotional trauma that may be the result of an event such as witnessing or being the victim of a violent crime. This is relatively rare, and for reasons that are not known, occurs more often to women than to men. Patients may experience varying degrees of memory loss, including up to all personal memories and self-identity, and the experience can last from a few hours up to several days or longer.
It is important to realize that amnesia is not the same as dementia, another form of memory loss. Amnesia does not usually afflict people with other cognitive difficulties, such as those found in dementia patients. For example, amnesiacs are able to function with daily activities of living, and the condition does not usually affect skills such as reading and writing, speaking, or driving a car. In fact, the majority of amnesiacs are aware that they have a memory disorder. This can be frustrating, but it is also helpful as patients can be proactive in their attempts to regain memories. There are some steps that can be taken to help this process along, as we will discuss below.
Other symptoms that can potentially accompany amnesia include movement dysfunction (such as tremors or difficulty controlling arms and legs) and a phenomenon known as confabulation that involves totally false memories or jumbled true memories that are chronologically misplaced.
What Are the Major Causes of Amnesia?
- Most amnesia is caused by trauma to the head or brain. This accounts for a large percentage of amnesia cases, and most of the time the amnesia is only temporary. However, in certain instances, trauma can cause permanent memory loss, especially if there is significant brain damage that has occurred.
- Other common causes of amnesia include:
- Strokes or TIAs (sometimes called mini-strokes): When blood vessels associated with the brain are partially or totally blocked, one of the many health problems that can occur is amnesia. In the case of TIAs, which are temporary conditions, the amnesia is typically temporary. However, with a major stroke, certain memory functions may never return.
- Oxygen deprivation to the brain: This happens when a person experiences events such as a heart attack, a drowning event, carbon monoxide poisoning, or any situation that results in respiratory distress.
- Hemorrhaging in the brain: When blood collects between the brain and the skull (a condition known as subarachnoid hemorrhage), it can trigger temporary memory loss until the hemorrhaging and pressure are resolved.
- Inflammation of the brain: When this occurs, often the result of infections such as encephalitis, amnesia can develop. This is also associated with certain forms of cancer that can trigger an autoimmune response (known as pareneoplasitic limbic encephalitis) in the brain, resulting in inflammation that brings on amnesia.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: Also referred to as wet brain, this condition is the result of prolonged alcohol abuse. It causes irreversible brain damage that results in permanent amnesia.
- Seizure disorders:Some, but not all, seizure disorders can trigger episodes of amnesia.
- Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT):This is a treatment sometimes used to treat mental illness that involves shock treatments administered to the brain. It can result in amnesia that is almost always temporary.
- Brain tumors:If a tumor affects areas of the brain related to memory, amnestic syndrome is sometimes associated with the cancer.
How Can Amnesia Be Treated or Prevented?
The most common way that amnesia is treated is by tackling the underlying causes that may be triggering the amnesia. Cognitive therapies are the best way to reverse or diminish the effects of amnesia. Many amnesiacs have experienced great results at learning or “re-teaching” parts of their brain to perform functions that damaged memory utilities in the brain may never recover. Researchers refer to this network of memory functions as the limbic system, and as with most parts of our wonderfully-designed bodies, amnesiacs can learn to enlist the aid of a healthy part of the limbic system to support a damaged area that is causing memory loss. This is most often done through “brain exercises” that are designed to help this process along. This is often done under the supervision of an occupational therapist.
Prevention is another story. We cannot totally prevent the unexpected, such as accidents that may damage the brain. Of course practicing safety by wearing helmets, seat belts, and other protective gear may help, but what about a lifestyle that promotes brain health? If we are giving the body what is needs nutritionally on a regular basis, the likelihood or severity of amnesia will be reduced, and recovery of memory loss will be much quicker if it should occur. Here are a few basic dietary brain health tips:
- Make sure you get enough thiamin (vitamin B1) in your diet. A lack of this critical B vitamin can cause several forms of brain dysfunction. Dietary sources include kidney beans, brown rice, peanuts, and bran flakes.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are excellent for brain health. Flax seed oil and oily cold-water fish are good sources of omega-3.
- Eliminate or moderate the use of alcohol. One of the many bad health effects it has on the body is to cause the death of brain cells.
There are many other lifestyle choices that will increase one’s chances of avoiding or overcoming amnesia as well. Keeping our bodies strong through plenty of regular exercise and drinking ample amounts of pure water every day are two that come to mind. We cannot anticipate the future and totally avoid inherent dangers in life that can lead to brain trauma and amnesia. But we can live in such a way that our bodies are best prepared to meet and beat whatever challenges may come our way.