Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at May 13, 2016

Amnesia is the loss of memories, facts and information. It can be temporary or permanent. There are many different types and causes of amnesia.


Definition & Facts

Amnesia can be a total or partial loss of one's memory. It does not affect a person's intelligence, awareness, personality, or personal identity. There are many different forms of amnesia but the two main subtypes are retrograde amnesia and anterograde amnesia.

Even though it can be troubling, a mild degree of memory loss is a part of normal aging and typically does not affect day to day life. Significant failure of memory recollection may indicate a number of amnestic disorders and cause severe complications in a person's quality of life.

Symptoms & Complaints

The main symptom of amnesia is memory loss. Additional common symptoms of amnesic disorders include disorientation, invented memories or memories placed out of correct time. With retrograde amnesia, the patient has difficulty recalling past experiences or facts. Normally the most recently formed memories are affected first and older experiences are gradually lost over time.

Patients with anterograde amnesia cannot form new memories. This can be temporary or permanent depending on each individual situation. Another type of amnesia is transient global amnesia and the symptoms are much less understood. Patients seem to experience periods of confusion and memory loss over the course of several hours, and have no recollection of the experience once it has stopped.


Memories are formed and contained throughout the brain. Therefore any disease or injury to the brain can result in what is called neurological amnesia. Possible causes of this type of memory loss include:

Mild and temporary amnesia can be the result of concussions and blackouts from short-term alcohol consumption. These do not normally cause severe amnesia and may only disrupt memory recollection for hours, days or weeks.

Psychogenic amnesia (also called dissociative amnesia) is another rare form of amnesia and is ordinarily a result of intense emotional shock or psychological trauma such as being a victim of a violent attack. Dissociative amnesia is different from other common forms due to the fact the memories still exist. They are often deeply buried in the person's mind and may be triggered into recollection or resurface on their own.

A recent discovery has uncovered that many patients with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. This occurs when there is damage to the hippocampus area of the brain. This area is thought to be centrally responsible for emotion and memory.

Diagnosis & Tests

It is important to visit a medical professional when one experiences unexplained memory loss, confusion or head injury. Unfortunately, some of those suffering from amnesia may not have the lucidity to seek important medical care and must rely on the detection from others to get help.

Once care is sought out, doctors will perform a comprehensive evaluation that may include a detailed medical history, multiple cognitive tests and routine physical examinations. A medical history will help to determine the type of memory loss and possible causes such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse or stroke. It may also uncover possible hereditary factors from family histories of cancers or dementia-related illnesses.

A physical exam will test the patient's reflexes, balance and sensory function to detect other brain and central nervous system malfunctions. Cognitive evaluations test a person's memory and knowledge of general information such as the date and president's name. This will help the practitioner establish the extent of memory loss.

Further evaluations may be necessary depending on the result of the comprehensive exam. If brain damage or abnormalities are suspected, a doctor may order conclusive MRI and CT scans. Blood work will test for infections or deficiencies in nutrients that may cause the memory loss. If there is suspicion of a seizure, an electroencephalogram could be performed. 

Treatment & Therapy

Treatments for amnesia normally focus on the causative condition. Certain drugs and medications may prevent future strokes or seizures. An application of vitamins can reverse a deficiency. Concussion and head injuries can heal over time. Surgical procedures to remove harmful tumors may be performed. Though these treatment options may stop the contributing factor of amnesia, in many cases memory will not be completely recovered. There is no actual treatment to reverse memory loss.

In many amnesic cases, occupational therapy is the best option to help the individual cope with the condition in day to day life. Occupational therapy works by teaching patient's new skills for easy memory retrieval, how to use memory aids and to learn retention of new information to replace lost memories. Many individuals who struggle with mild to severe amnesia also use smartphones or tablets to help organize and retrieve useful daily information such as appointments and set alarms to take medications.

Researchers and scientists are working to develop medications that affect neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for memory formation. Due to the brain's complexities, it is not likely that a singular medication can be made to correct memory loss. 

Prevention & Prophylaxis

The most common cause of amnesia is damage or injury to the brain. In some cases, such as stroke or seizure, this cannot be prevented. Smart and healthy life practices can only minimize the chance of injury and ultimately amnesia.

  • Wear a helmet when on a bicycle or motorcycle as well as during contact sports
  • Treat infections immediately to reduce the possibility of spreading to the brain
  • Limit alcohol and drug use
  • Stay mentally active through available classes, reading, etc
  • Seek medical attention if seizure, stroke or any other medical condition is suspected
  • Wear a seatbelt when in a vehicle
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