Amnesia is the loss of memory, caused by disease, brain damage, or psychological trauma. It is usually permanent, but can be caused temporarily by the use of hypnotic drugs and various sedatives. Depending on the extent of damage that was caused, the memory may be either partially or totally lost. People who have amnesia can generally recall immediate information, and sometimes can still form new memories. There is a severe reduction in the ability to retrieve old information however, as well as in the ability to learn new material. Sometimes a person may lose only a couple of months of memory, while others may have memory loss that extends back decades.
There are two main features of amnesia: the impaired ability to recall previously familiar information and past events (called retrograde amnesia), and the impaired ability to learn new information (known as anterograde amnesia). Most people who suffer from amnesia have difficulties with short-term memory. Deeply ingrained memories may be spared, while recent memories are more likely to be lost. For example, a person may be able to name past presidents, but forget what they had for breakfast in the morning. Sometimes this affects their ability to retain new information. Amnesia usually does not affect a person’s ability to write, speak, or communicate in any way, and people with amnesia usually understand that they have a memory disorder. Other symptoms of amnesia may include confusion or disorientation, false recollections (possibly made up of past memories misplaced in time, or completely invented), and neurological problems such as tremors or uncoordinated movements. Johns Hopkins Medicine offers more information on amnesia and its various symptoms.
There are three categories in which a person can acquire amnesia: head trauma, traumatic events, and physical deficiencies. Head trauma is a very broad range and it deals with any kind of active action or injury toward the brain which might cause amnesia. This includes hitting the head during a fall or car accident, or any kind of physical blow to the head that may damage the brain. Traumatic events are much more subjective. They depend entirely on the individual and what that person experiences. A traumatic event is an event where something is so distressing the mind decides to forget the event entirely rather than deal with the stress the event brings. This may include a violent car crash or disturbing childhood memory. Instead of dealing with the difficulties the particular event brings, the brain decides to block it off completely. Physical deficiencies are similar to head trauma, although they lean more toward passive physical issues as opposed to physical blows. Other possible causes of amnesia include brain inflammation, stroke, tumors in the areas of the brain that control memory, long-term alcohol abuse, and degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Amnesia is caused by some kind of damage to the brain. Thus, it is important to take steps to reduce the risk of brain injury. While driving, make sure to always wear a seat belt. When riding a bike or motorcycle, always wear a helmet. Seek immediate medical attention if you have any symptoms that suggest a brain aneurysm or stroke, and treat any infection right away to make sure it doesn’t spread to the brain. While some causes of amnesia cannot be prevented (such as experiencing traumatic events), the risk can be reduced by following proper safety measures.
Unfortunately, there are no medications available at the moment for treating most types of amnesia. While some forms of amnesia fix themselves, others will never go away.
Thus, individuals with amnesia need to develop ways to cope with memory loss. One of these ways is through occupational or cognitive therapy. Therapy will help patients develop any memory skills they might still have and try to regain some they may have lost. Amnesiacs do this through various techniques that help create new retrieval paths and retrieve memories. This includes implementing strategies for organizing information, such as using a digital device to keep track of day-to-day tasks. Low-tech memory aids like notebooks, photographs, and calendars can also help with memory.