Amnesia is partial or total inability to recall past experiences. It may result from traumatic brain injury, degeneration, metabolic disorders, seizures, or psychologic disturbances. Diagnosis is clinical but often includes neuropsychologic testing and brain imaging (eg, CT, MRI). Treatment is directed at the cause.
Processing of memories involves registration (taking in new information), encoding (forming associations, time stamps, and other processes necessary for retrieval), and retrieval. Deficits in any of these steps can cause amnesia. Amnesia, by definition, results from impairment of memory functions, not impairment of other functions (eg, attention, motivation, reasoning, language), which may cause similar symptoms.
Amnesia can be classified as follows:
Amnesia may be transient (as occurs after brain trauma), fixed (as occurs after a serious event such as encephalitis, global ischemia, or cardiac arrest), or progressive (as occurs with degenerative dementias, such as Alzheimer disease).
Memory deficits more commonly involve facts (declarative memory) and, less commonly, skills (procedural memory).
Amnesia can result from diffuse cerebral impairment, bilateral lesions, or multifocal injuries that impair memory-storage areas in the cerebral hemispheres. Predominant pathways for declarative memory are located along the medial parahippocampal region and hippocampus as well as in the inferomedial temporal lobes, orbital surface of the frontal lobes (basal forebrain), and diencephalon (which contains the thalamus and hypothalamus). Of these structures, the hippocampal gyri, hypothalamus, nuclei of the basal forebrain, and dorsomedial thalamic nuclei are critical. The amygdaloid nucleus contributes emotional amplifications to memory. The thalamic intralaminar nuclei and brain stem reticular formation stimulate the imprinting of memories. Bilateral damage to the mediodorsal nuclei of the thalamus severely impairs recent memory and the ability to form new memories.
Amnesia may be caused by
Posttraumatic amnesias for the periods immediately before and after concussion or moderate or severe head trauma seem to result from medial temporal lobe injury. Moderate or severe trauma may affect larger areas of memory storage and recall, as can many diffuse cerebral disorders that cause dementia.
Psychologic disturbances of memory result from extreme psychologic trauma or stress (see Dissociative Amnesia).
With aging, many people gradually develop noticeable problems with memory, often first for names, then for events, and occasionally for spatial relationships. This widely experienced so-called benign senescent forgetfulness (age-associated memory impairment) has no proven relationship to dementia, although some similarities are hard to overlook. People who have a subjective memory problem, who do worse on objective memory tests, but who otherwise have intact cognition and daily function may have amnestic mild cognitive impairment (amnestic MCI). People with amnestic MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer disease than age-matched people without memory problems.
Simple bedside tests (eg, 3-item recall, location of objects previously hidden in the room) and formal tests (eg, word list learning tests such as the California Verbal Learning Test and the Buschke Selective Reminding Test) can help identify verbal memory loss. Assessment of nonverbal memory is more difficult but may include recall of visual designs or a series of tones.
Clinical findings usually suggest causes and any necessary tests.
Any underlying disorder or psychologic cause must be treated. However, some patients with acute amnesia improve spontaneously. Certain disorders that cause amnesia (eg, Alzheimer disease, Korsakoff psychosis, herpes encephalitis) can be treated; however, treatment of the underlying disorder may or may not lessen the amnesia. Cholinergic drugs (eg, donepezil) may improve memory slightly and temporarily in patients with Alzheimer disease; these drugs are often also tried when another dementia is the cause. Otherwise, no specific measures can hasten recovery or improve the outcome.
Last full review/revision July 2013 by Juebin Huang, MD, PhD
Content last modified October 2013