Amnesia is the inability to remember information or events. It may be temporary or permanent.
Memory is created by complicated interactions within several parts of the brain. Most memory loss or the inability to make new memories is caused by damage to the brain. It may be caused by trauma, an illness like a brain infection, stroke, or some medications.
Sometimes the cause is not known, especially with transient global amnesia.
Rarely, a psychological trauma or shock can cause a type of amnesia called dissociative amnesia. This is most often short-term amnesia.
Factors that may increase the chances of amnesia:
- Head and brain injuries, such as from a car accident or contact sport
- Brain damage from conditions such as:
- Alcohol or substance use disorders
- Severe illness affecting the brain, such as encephalitis
- Brain damage complications from procedures such as:
- Dementia or Alzheimer disease
- Recent physical or emotional pain or trauma
- Taking certain medications such as anesthesia medications
- Metabolic changes such as low blood sugar or hypoxia
- Migraine auras
Areas of the Brain Affected by Dementia
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Symptoms may include:
- Inability to remember past information (retrograde amnesia) and/or new information (anterograde amnesia)
Amnesia generally does not affect general intelligence, personality, or self-identity. In other words, people with amnesia remember who they are.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. The doctor will ask specific questions about memory loss and when it started. Family members may also be interviewed in order to gather information.
To help determine a cause the doctor may do the following tests:
- A physical and neurological exam
- Blood tests to look for chemical imbalances or infections
- Images of the brain may be taken to look for damaged structures. Images may be taken with:
- EEG—to test the brain’s electrical activity
Treatment of temporary amnesia will focus on treating the cause. This may include psychological treatment for dissociative amnesia. Some amnesia may only last a few days and will simply require observation until the amnesia has passed.
Long-term amnesia will require occupational therapy and new skills to help manage daily activities. Occupational therapy can help with skills and use memory training to better manage memory loss. Technological tools, notebooks, or reminders like photos may also help manage memory gaps.
Memory loss can be difficult for the individual, family, and friends. A therapist or support group may help you and loved ones to adjust.
There are no current guidelines to prevent amnesia.
Amnesia. Better Health Channel website. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/amnesia. Updated August 2014. Accessed April 18, 2018.
Amnesias. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/function-and-dysfunction-of-the-cerebral-lobes/amnesias. Updated June 2017. Accessed April 18, 2018.
Memory loss (amnesia). NHS Choices website. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/memory-loss-amnesia. Accessed April 18, 2018.
Transient global amnesia. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115849/Transient-global-amnesia. Updated May 11, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2018.
Transient global amnesia. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/function-and-dysfunction-of-the-cerebral-lobes/transient-global-amnesia. Updated June 2017. Accessed April 18, 2018.
Treating amnesia. Brain & Life—American Academy of Neurology website. Available at: https://www.brainandlife.org/the-magazine/article/app/4/4/20. Accessed April 18, 2018.
Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Adrian Preda, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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