Amnesia refers to the loss of memory. Memory loss may result from two-sided (bilateral) damage to parts of the brain vital for memory storage, processing, or recall (the limbic system, including the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe).
Amnesia can be a symptom of several neurodegenerative diseases; however, people whose primary symptom is memory loss (amnesiacs), typically remain lucid and retain their sense of self. They may even be aware that they suffer from a memory disorder.
People who experience amnesia have been instrumental in helping brain researchers determine how the brain processes memory. Until the early 1970s, researchers viewed memory as a single entity. Memory of new experiences, motor skills, past events, and previous conditioning were grouped together in one system that relied on a specific area of the brain.
If all memory were stored in the same way, it would be reasonable to deduce that damage to the specific brain area would cause complete memory loss. However, studies of amnesiacs counter that theory. Such research demonstrates that the brain has multiple systems for processing, storing, and drawing on memory.
Amnesia has several root causes. Most are traceable to brain injury related to physical trauma, disease, infection, drug and alcohol abuse, or reduced blood flow to the brain (vascular insufficiency). In Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, for example, damage to the memory centers of the brain results from the use of alcohol or malnutrition. Infections that damage brain tissue, including encephalitis and herpes, can also cause amnesia. If the amnesia is thought to be of psychological origin, it is termed psychogenic.
There are at least three general types of amnesia:
In diagnosing amnesia and its cause, doctors look at several factors. During a physical examination, the doctor inquires about recent traumas or illnesses, drug and medication history, and checks the patient's general health. Psychological exams may be ordered to determine the extent of amnesia and the memory system affected. The doctor may also order imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to reveal whether the brain has been damaged, and blood work to exclude treatable metabolic causes or chemical imbalances.
Treatment depends on the root cause of amnesia and is handled on an individual basis. Regardless of cause, cognitive rehabilitation may be helpful in learning strategies to cope with memory impairment.
Some types of amnesia, such as transient global amnesia, are completely resolved and there is no permanent loss of memory. Others, such as Korsakoff syndrome, associated with prolonged alcohol abuse or amnesias caused by severe brain injury, may be permanent. Depending on the degree of amnesia and its cause, victims may be able to lead relatively normal lives. Amnesiacs can learn through therapy to rely on other memory systems to compensate for what is lost.
Amnesia is only preventable in so far as brain injury can be prevented or minimized. Common sense approaches include wearing a helmet when bicycling or participating in potentially dangerous sports, using automobile seat belts, and avoiding excessive alcohol or drug use. Brain infections should be treated swiftly and aggressively to minimize the damage due to swelling. Victims of strokes, brain aneurysms, and transient ischemic attacks should seek immediate medical treatment.