Amnesia

What is amnesia?

Amnesia is a profound memory loss which is usually caused either by physical injury to the brain or by the ingestion of a toxic substance which affects the brain. In addition, the memory loss can be caused by a traumatic, emotional event.

What are the characteristics of amnesia?

People with amnesia have difficulty learning new information, and/or they have difficulty recalling previously learned information. They may be disoriented and confused. Their memory deficit causes problems for them either at work, in school, or in social settings. Sometimes the memory loss is severe enough to necessitate a supervised living situation.

Does amnesia affect males, females, or both?

Amnesia can affect anyone, male or female.

At what age does amnesia appear?

Amnesia can occur at any age.

How is amnesia diagnosed?

A mental health professional will want to take a careful personal history.

Causes of amnesia can include:

  • External trauma, such as a blow to the head
  • Internal trauma, such as stroke
  • Exposure to a toxic substances such as carbon monoxide
  • Inadequate diet
  • Brain tumors
  • Seizures

There are no laboratory tests that are necessary to confirm amnesia nor are there any physical conditions that must be met. However, it is very important not to overlook a physical illness that might mimic or contribute to amnesia. If there is any doubt about a medical problem, the mental health professional should refer to a physician, who will perform a complete physical examination and request any necessary laboratory tests.

Very sophisticated psychological testing, called neuropsychological testing, can be very helpful in determining the presence of amnesia. Sometimes the diagnosis of amnesia can be aided by the use of brain scans such as the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
How is amnesia treated?

Psychotherapy can be helpful for people whose amnesia is caused by emotional trauma. For instance, hypnosis may help some patients/clients recall forgotten memories.

Sometimes it is appropriate to administer a drug called Amytal (sodium amobarbital) to people suffering from amnesia. The medicine helps some people recall their lost memories. The use of hypnosis or Amytal has become controversial when it is used to help a patient recall repressed memories, especially repressed memories associated with sexual abuse. After recalling memories of abuse, some patients have filed suit against the alleged perpetrator of the sexual abuse. The validity of memories recalled under these treatment situations is being questioned and tested in the courts.

Hospitalization is usually not necessary to treat amnesia unless the person is at risk for harming himself/herself.

What happens to people with amnesia?

The course of the amnesia is variable depending upon the cause of the memory problem. By removing the toxic substance, for instance alcohol, the person's memory will recover within hours. However, if the brain has been severely injured, it may take weeks, months, or years for recovery to occur. In some instances, the amnesia never goes away.

Therefore, the prognosis depends upon the extent of the brain trauma. If an ingested substance caused the memory loss and the body can rid itself of the offending substance without causing permanent brain injury, the prognosis is quite good. However, once the brain is damaged it may be very slow to heal, and therefore, the prognosis can be quite poor.

What can people do if they need help?

If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014