Amnesia, also known as "amnestic syndrome," refers to a person's inability to retrieve memories or pieces of information from the brain and occurs when the areas of the brain responsible for recovering stored information become compromised by physical or psychological damage.
Several structures located deep within the brain, such as the hippocampus (responsible for the formation and storage of memories) and the thalamus (involved in the regulation of sensory perception), comprise the limbic system, a complex network that controls our emotional responses, survival instincts, memory creation, and memory retrieval. Amnesia can be caused by physical or psychological trauma to these structures, brought on by diseases such as Alzheimer's, encephalitis or meningitis, seizures, stroke or drug use.
Most types of amnestic memory loss fall into one of two categories: anterograde or retrograde. Anterograde is the most common form of amnesia, and includes those who are unable to store, retain or recall new knowledge after the event that triggers the amnesia. (Of note, this is the form of amnesia Christine suffers from in Before I Go to Sleep). Retrograde amnesia is the form that most people think of when they hear the term amnesia. It involves the loss of memory of anything that occurred before the event that triggered the amnesia, and often occurs after a head injury. This form is less likely to be permanent than anterograde.
Other less common forms of amnesia include hysterical amnesia (memory loss caused by psychological trauma); lacunar amnesia (inability to remember a specific event); posthypnotic amnesia (caused by hypnosis); and transient global amnesia (temporary loss of all memory).
There is no known pharmacological treatment for those suffering from amnesia, and, though people affected can often regain access to stored memories, sometimes the memory loss is permanent. Patients and their families are shown various techniques for improving memory function and are helped to develop coping strategies.
The methods used vary from person to person, but may include occupational therapy to help re-learn skills that were lost. High-tech devices like smartphones or personal digital assistants (PDAs) are often provided to help the sufferer organize and track tasks. Low-tech aids like notepads, journals, wall calendars and photographs are also frequently used.
For a look at the life of Clive Wearing, a man who lives with both anterograde and retrograde amnesia, click on the video below.
This article was originally published in June 2011, and has been updated for the
February 2012 paperback release.
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