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Disease: Amnesia Amnesia
Category: Neurological diseases
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Disease Definition:

Also called amnestic syndrome, amnesia refers to a loss of the everyday sense of memory responsible for knowing facts, information, experiences and events. This memory loss can't be accounted for by problems with perception, attention, language, motivation and reasoning.
Usually, people with amnesia maintain a sense of self and are lucid, but may not be able to recall information and memories of past experiences. They also meet with great difficulty when trying to learn new information or form new memories.

Amnesia occurs quite rarely and results from damage to particular parts of the brain that are vital for learning and memory processing. When it comes to older people, a more common cause of memory impairment is MCI (mild cognitive impairment), which is a transition stage between the cognitive changes of normal aging and much more serious problems caused by Alzheimer's disease or dementia.

Medications or other medical treatments can't restore memory loss in amnesia which is permanent, unlike transient global amnesia, which is a temporary episode of memory loss. However, there are techniques for enhancing day-to-day memory as well as social and psychological support that can help people with amnesia and their families to cope.

Work Group:

Prepared by: Scientific Section

Symptoms, Causes


The two characteristics of amnesia are:

Retrograde amnesia, which is the inability to recall past events and previously familiar information.
Anterograde amnesia, which is the inability to learn new information following the onset of amnesia.

Most people with amnesia can't retain new information because they have problems with short-term memory and many of them have some extent of impaired memory recall. Recent memories are most likely to be lost, such as the name of the current president or month or even what they had for breakfast, but other memories, which are more remote or deeply ingrained, may be spared, such as the names of past presidents or experiences from childhood.

People suffering from amnesia can understand spoken and written language and can even learn skills, such as playing piano or riding a bike. On tests of reasoning and attention, they do quite well and often understand that they have a memory disorder, because the memory loss doesn't affect their general knowledge, intelligence, awareness, judgment, attention span, personality or identity.

Depending on the cause of amnesia, its additional signs and symptoms may include:


  • Neurological problems, such as uncoordinated movements or tremors.
  • Confabulation (false recollections). These may be either genuine memories misplaced in time or completely invented ones.
  • Disorientation or confusion.

Amnesia isn't the same as dementia because dementia includes memory loss, as well as other significant cognitive problems that lead to a decline in the ability to carry out daily activities. One of the symptoms of MCI (mild cognitive impairment) is a pattern of forgetfulness, but the problems in this disorder aren't as severe as those in amnesia.


Amnesia results from damage to the brain structures that form the limbic system, which controls emotions and memories. These structures, which include the hippocampus and thalamus, lie deep within the brain on the underside of the temporal lobe. Any disease or injury that affects the brain can interfere with the intricacies of memory because normal memory function involves many parts of the brain.

Neurological or organic amnesia is the type of amnesic syndrome caused by brain injury. Some of its possible causes are:


  • Inflammation of the brain, known as encephalitis, which results from infection with a virus such as herpes simplex virus (HSV) or as an autoimmune reaction to cancer somewhere else in the body, known as paraneoplastic limbic encephalitis PLE.
  • Head injuries, such as those that happen in car accidents, which can lead to confusion and problems remembering new information, especially in the early stages of recovery. These injuries usually don’t cause severe amnesia.
  • Lack of adequate oxygen in the brain, such as those sustained from a carbon monoxide poisoning, respiratory distress or a heart attack.
  • Long term alcohol abuse, which leads to thiamin (vitamin B1) deficiency, also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
  • Certain seizure disorders.
  • Tumors in some areas of the brain that control memory.
  • Stroke.
  • ECT (electroconvulsive therapy)
  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage, which means bleeding between the brain and skull.

Dissociative or psychogenic amnesia is a rare type of amnesia that is caused by emotional shock or trauma, such as being the victim of a violent crime. In this type of amnesia, the person may lose personal memories and autobiographical information for a few hours, days or longer.



Amnestic syndrome can cause problems at work, school and in social settings. This syndrome varies in severity and scope, but even mild amnesia takes a toll on quality of life and daily activities, because recovering lost memories is not possible. People suffering from severe amnesia should live in a supervised situation or extended care facility.


There are specific techniques and strategies to help make up for the memory problem. Memory training includes a variety of strategies for organizing information to make it easier to remember and to improve understanding of extended conversation. A person with amnesia may work with an occupational therapist to learn new information in order to replace what was lost, or to use intact memories as a basis for taking in new information.

Some people with amnesia could use low-tech memory aids, such as notebooks, pill minders, wall calendars, along with photographs of people and places. But most people find using a PDA (personal digital assistant) very helpful. This device can be easily used by people with severe amnesia with some training and practice to help them with day-to-day tasks, such as taking medications or remembering important events.

In the Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome there is a lack of thiamin, so treatment will include replacing this vitamin and providing proper nutrition. But currently, there are no available medications for treating most types of amnestic syndrome. Additionally, the complexity of the brain process involved makes it improbable that a single medication will be able to resolve memory problems. Several neurotransmitters involved in memory formation are being researched and investigated in the hopes of one day finding new treatments for memory disorders.


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