I watch plenty of TV shows, and there is sometimes a plot where a character is in an accident, then completely loses his or her memory. Is there really such a condition?
Yes. It is called amnesia.
Amnesia means the loss of your memories, including facts you should know (e.g. the current Prime Minister), personal information (e.g. where you live) and what you have experienced.
Totally forgetting who you are, however, is very rare.
It is a common and very intriguing plotline in movies and TV shows, but it doesn’t often happen in real life.
Oh, really? Does this mean that people who have amnesia usually remember their own names?
Yes. People who have amnesia usually know who they are and what their names are.
What they experience is usually trouble learning new things and forming new memories.
What is the difference between amnesia and dementia?
Amnesia is a symptom and/or a syndrome (It is also called amnesiac syndrome).
Dementia also involves memory loss, but has many other symptoms as well.
These include an inability to speak out and understand, loss of motor function, inability to recognise places and people, and changes in personality.
Dementia is progressive, disabling and will ultimately kill you.
You can say that amnesia is one of the symptoms of dementia.
To recap, amnesia is a loss of memory, but dementia is a loss of brain function, which affects more than just memory.
Why does someone with amnesia have difficulty forming new memories?
It depends on what sort of amnesia they have.
In anterograde amnesia, patients experience difficulty in learning new information after the onset of the amnesia.
This is the most common type of amnesia.
With this condition, you can’t seem to retain anything new that you learn, whether at work or during social occasions with your friends and loved ones.
The more recent memories may be lost, such as what you had for breakfast that morning or where you went last night.
You may however, be able to recall things in the past, e.g. what happened in your childhood or the name of your childhood sweetheart.
This is because past memories are more deeply embedded in the temporal lobe of your brain.
Retrograde amnesia is the type in which you have difficulty remembering past events and past information that you were previously been familiar with.
Can people with amnesia understand words?
Of course. When you have amnesia, your primary symptom is memory loss.
You still have your identity, your knowledge of words, your judgment, your empathy, your general knowledge of how things work and your awareness.
You definitely still have your intelligence.
You can even learn skills such as riding a bike, skating or playing a musical instrument.
But memory loss is not the only symptom you can possibly experience when you have amnesia.
You may experience false memories, which may be completely made-up by yourself to substitute for your real memories or stitched together from real memories that actually happened at different periods of time from when your false memory places them.
Naturally, a lot of patients are confused and disorientated when amnesia happens.
What causes amnesia? Head injuries?
That’s the usual cause in TV shows.
But honestly, any disease that affects your brain can affect your memory.
If there is any damage to the brain structures that form your limbic system, you can have amnesia.
Your limbic system – which includes your thalamus deep inside the centre of your brain and your hippocampus, deep inside your temporal (side) lobes – is in charge of your emotions and memories.
So, not only injury to your brain can cause amnesia, but also infections (e.g. encephalitis), stroke, heart attack (which restricts oxygen to your brain), alcohol abuse leading to Vitamin B1 deficiency, tumours in those parts of your brain, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, seizures, and certain medications like sedatives.
Is amnesia permanent?
Most of the time, no.
The head injuries you get from concussions usually cause only temporary amnesia. This usually happens in the early stages of your recovery.
However, serious head injuries, e.g. from a bad car accident, can cause permanent amnesia.
Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, email email@example.com. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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