Amnesia (am-NE-zhah) is the loss of memory about one or more past experiences that is more than normalforgetfulness.
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"Where am I? Who am I? Who are you?"
Many movies and television programs show people losing their memory after a whack on the head. They awake mumbling about their identity. Sometimes the memory even returns after another whack. In reality, physical trauma such as a concussion * can cause temporary or permanent amnesia, but it seldom happens as simply as shown in movies and on television. The idea of fixing a memory problem such as amnesia with another blow is pure fiction.
What Is Amnesia?
Amnesia is a disorder that can have complex physical and psychological causes. It can last from a few hours to a lifetime. The common symptom is an inability to remember the past. The person with amnesia might forget a particular event or one or more periods of time. The amnesia might involve a total loss of memory about the event or period, or it might leave a person with fuzzy memories of the past. In some cases, amnesia might keep the person only from retrieving old memories of events that happened before an illness or injury. In other cases, it might keep the person from storing new memories of events that happened afterward.
Amnesia is not normal forgetfulness. If a student can not recall where a notebook was left, that is normal. If, however, the student can not remember where the school is, the problem might be amnesia. Everyone forgets once in a while, but it is a special concern for older men and women, who often find themselves forgetting names and details. This, too, can be perfectly normal, because the ability to retrieve memories often slows with age. There are, however, specific diseases and conditions that can cause older people to have trouble with memory, such as Alzheimer's disease * .
What Causes Amnesia?
Amnesia can result from a medical disorder or injury, such as Alz-heimer's disease, a stroke * , or a car accident. Abuse of drugs and alcohol, lack of certain vitamins, exposure to toxins such as carbon monoxide, and certain prescription medications also can cause amnesia. Psychological trauma can cause people to repress memories. This means that they block unacceptable ideas and impulses out of consciousness. For example, a person who sees a loved one being murdered might find it hard to recall any details of the event.
* concussion is an injury to the brain that results from a blow to the head, It may or may not cause a loss of consciousness.
* Alzheimer's disease is a condition that leads to a gradually worsening loss of mental abilities, including memory, judgment, and abstract thinking, as well as changes in personality,
* stroke is an event that occurs when a blood vessel bringing oxygen and nutrients to the brain bursts or becomes clogged by a blood clot or other particle. As a result, nerve cells in the affected area of the brain cannot function.
How Is Amnesia Diagnosed and Treated?
The first sign of amnesia often is confusion and disorientation. People might try to fill in the blanks in memory or even deny that they have forgotten an event or period of time. If the cause is physical, the reason for the amnesia might be obvious, such as a brain injury or stroke. If it is psychological, amnesia might be harder to diagnose, which means doctors often rely on interviews with family members as well as their own observations.
Treatment for amnesia varies, depending on what caused it. If the cause is physical, the condition causing the amnesia is treated. In some cases, this will reverse the amnesia. In other cases, however, the damage can be permanent, such as from a stroke or drug and alcohol abuse. Amnesia that involves a psychological cause usually is treated with counseling.
Noll, Richard, and Carol A. Turkington. The Encyclopedia of Memory and Memory Disorders. New York: Facts on File, 1994. A reference book about memory problems.
American Psychiatric Association, 1400 K Street Northwest, Washington,
DC 20005. An organization of physicians. Its website has information
about amnesia caused by psychological trauma, Alzheimer's
disease, and abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Brain Injury Association, 105 North Alfred Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
A national support organization. Its website has information about
amnesia caused by a brain injury.