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.
Causes and symptoms
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:
Anterograde. This form of amnesia follows brain trauma and is characterized by the inability to remember new information. Recent experiences and short-term memory disappear, but victims can recall events prior to the trauma with clarity.
Retrograde. In some ways, this form of amnesia is the opposite of anterograde amnesia: the victim can recall events that occurred after a trauma, but cannot remember previously familiar information or the events preceding the trauma.
Transient global amnesia. This type of amnesia has no consistently identifiable cause, but researchers have suggested that migraines or transient ischemic attacks may be the trigger. (A transient ischemic attack, sometimes called "a small stroke, " occurs when a blockage in an artery temporarily blocks off blood supply to part of the brain.) A victim experiences sudden confusion and forgetfulness. Attacks can be as brief as 30-60 minutes or can last up to 24 hours. In severe attacks, a person is completely disoriented and may experience retrograde amnesia that extends back several years. While very frightening for the patient, transient global amnesia generally has an excellent prognosis for recovery.
Julia Barrett, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,