What is amnesia?

When you hear the word amnesia, what comes into your mind? Memory loss of course! That is the basic meaning of the word. People who suffer from amnesia have difficulty creating or forming new memories. Other patients have difficulty recollecting past experiences of facts. However, people with this disorder do retain the knowledge of motor skills as well as their own identity. As one age, he or she may lose some memory. It is considered a normal part of aging. However, when the memory loss is significant, or the person is unable to form new memories, then it may indicate the presence of an amnestic disorder.

What are the symptoms of amnesia?

The major symptom associated with this disorder is memory loss or the inability to create new memories. If you are amnesic, you will find it difficult to recollect facts, places, specific details, or events. Details may range from your last dinner to the name of your church pastor or University Professor. However, as has been indicated before, you won’t have any difficulty recollecting your motor skills, such as your ability to speak fluently or walk.

There are many forms of this disorder. They include transient global, retrograde, and anterograde.

Transient global amnesia

The kind is not well understood. People who develop this condition experience agitation or confusion which comes and goes at intervals (usually hourly). Patients may experience an episode of memory loss prior to the attack, and will not have any lasting memory of the event. Researchers believe that this form of the disorder occurs as a result of temporary disruption of blood flow to the brain, or maybe as a result of activities that bear semblance to a seizure. It is more common in middle-aged folks or in members of the geriatric population.

Retrograde amnesia

People suffering from this form of the disorder lose existing memory. They also lose previously formed memories. Retrograde amnesia firsts affect memories that have been recently formed. Older memories get affected gradually. Retrograde amnesia is also caused by diseases such as dementia.

Anterograde amnesia

People suffering from anterograde amnesia find it difficult to form new memories. However, this effect can be temporary. For instance, a blackout caused by excessive intake of alcohol may trigger an episode of anterograde amnesia. Anterograde amnesia may also be permanent. Damage to the hippocampus may cause anterograde amnesia. The hippocampus plays a vital role in forming memories.

Infantile amnesia

Infantile amnesia is also known as childhood amnesia. People who experience this find it difficult to recall events that took place within the first three to five years of their lives.

What causes amnesia?


The location of memory in your brain depends on how old the memory is. If you lose old memories, then it may be that you have widespread deterioration of your brain. This may be caused by forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. People who have dementia usually retain older memories for a long time, while losing recent memories faster.


Anoxia is a condition that occurs when oxygen levels in the brain is depleted. This can cause memory loss. If the anoxia is mild and doesn’t cause brain damage, then the amnesia experienced will be temporary.

Damage to the hippocampus

The hippocampus is a component of the brain and the limbic system that plays a very important role in memory. Roles played by the hippocampus include creating memories, organizing memories, and facilitating their retrieval when needed. The cells of the hippocampus are very fragile and always in need of nutrients. Their physiology can easily be disrupted by anoxia and other factors such as toxins.

Impairment of the hippocampus makes it difficult to form new memories. If the hippocampus is totally damaged, then the patient can develop complete retrograde amnesia.

Head injuries

The brain can be damaged by traumatic head injuries, infections, stroke, and tumors. The brain damage may include permanent loss of memory. Concussions commonly disrupt memories of the hours, days, or weeks prior to and after the injury.

Alcohol use

Short-term use of alcohol may cause a blackout.  This is a temporary form of retrograde amnesia. Chronic alcoholism can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. People who develop this condition have difficulty forming new memories but are usually oblivious of this fact.

Stress or trauma

Stress or trauma may also contribute to dissociative amnesia. People who have this condition will discover that their mind rejects information, thoughts, or feelings that they are too overwhelmed to accommodate. A specific kind of dissociative amnesia known as dissociative fugue may cause a person to wander or travel unexpectedly. It may also lead to amnesia around the circumstances of traveling as well as forgetting other life details.

Electroconvulsive therapy

Some people do receive electroconvulsive therapy for their depression or other conditions. Such persons may experience retrograde amnesia of the weeks or months prior to the treatment. They may also experience anterograde amnesia, which usually resolves two weeks into the treatment.

Diagnosis of amnesia

A neurologist is responsible for the diagnosis of the disorder. He or she will start by questioning you about your memory loss, as well as other symptoms experienced by you. They may require the assistance of a caregiver or family member with their evaluation, since the patient may have difficulty recalling the answers to their questions.

The physician may also employ cognitive tests to check memory. They may also order other diagnostic tests. For instance, an MRI or CT scan may be used to check for signs of brain damage. They may also use blood tests to check for infections, nutritional deficiencies, or other issues. The physician will also carry out tests to check for seizures.

Treatment for amnesia

Treatment is done by focusing on the underlying cause of the disorder.

If the disorder is induced chemically, for instance by alcohol, can be treated with detoxification. Once the drug has been eliminated from the system, the memory problems will subside.

If the disorder is caused by mild trauma to the head, it can resolve over time without treatment. If the disorder is caused by severe injury to the head, it may not recede. However, improvements may be observed within 6 to 9 months.

Amnesia caused by dementia is usually incurable. However, your physician will prescribe drugs for you to help support learning and memory.

Occupational therapy may be recommended for those with persistent memory loss. This type of therapy boosts learning of new skills and information. The therapist will also teach you how to use memory aids. As a plus, you will learn techniques for organizing information to make it easier to retrieve.

Preventing amnesia

Adopting the following habits can lessen your risk of head injuries, blackouts, stroke, dementia, and other possible causes of memory loss:

  • Avoid prolonged alcoholism and drug abuse
  • Make use of protective headgear while playing sports that puts you at high risk of concussion
  • Be mentally active. Read books, take new classes, engage in mentally challenging games and explore new places.
  • Eat healthily. Fill your diet with vegetables, fruits, low-fat proteins, and whole grains.
  • Drink water. Staying hydrated is key!

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