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Amnesia is a condition in which memory is disturbed. The causes of amnesia are organic or functional. Organic causes include damage to the brain, through trauma or disease, or use of certain (generally sedative) drugs. Functional causes are psychological factors, such as defense mechanisms. Hysterical post-traumatic amnesia is an example of this. Amnesia may also be spontaneous, in the case of transient global amnesia. This global type of amnesia is more common in middle-aged to elderly people, particularly males, and usually lasts less than 24 hours.
Last Updated -13th December 2005
Types of amnesia
- In Anterograde amnesia, new events are not transferred to long-term memory, so the sufferer will not be able to remember anything that occurs after the onset of this type of amnesia for more than a few moments. The complement of this is retrograde amnesia, where someone will be unable to recall events that occurred before the onset of amnesia. The terms are used to categorise patterns of symptoms, rather than to indicate a particular cause or etiology. Both categories of amnesia can occur together in the same patient, and commonly result from damage to the brain regions most closely associated with episodic/declarative memory: the medial temporal lobes and especially the hippocampus.
- Traumatic amnesia is generally due to a head injury (fall, knock on the head). Traumatic amnesia is often transient; the duration of the amnesia is related to the degree of injury and may give an indication of the prognosis for recovery of other functions. Mild trauma, such as a car accident that could result in no more than mild whiplash, might cause the occupant of a car to have no memory of the moments just before the accident due to a brief interruption in the short/long-term memory transfer mechanism. "Traumatic amnesia" is also sometimes used to refer to long-term repressed memory that is the result of psychological trauma.
- Long-term alcoholism can cause a type of memory loss known as Korsakoff's syndrome. This is caused by brain damage due to a Vitamin B1 deficiency and will be progressive if alcohol intake and nutrition pattern are not modified. It will usually improve little over time even if they are. Other neurological problems are likely to be present.
- Lacunar amnesia is the loss of memory about one specific event.
- Fugue state is also known as dissociative fugue. It is caused by psychological trauma and is usually temporary. It is one or more episodes of amnesia in which the inability to recall some or all of one's past and either the loss of one's identity or the formation of a new identity occur with sudden, unexpected, purposeful travel away from home.
- Childhood amnesia (also known as Infantile amnesia) is the common inability to remember events from your own childhood.
- Global amnesia is total memory loss. This may be a defence mechanism which occurs after a traumatic event. Post-traumatic stress disorder can also involve the spontaneous, vivid retrieval of unwanted traumatic memories.
- Posthypnotic amnesia is where events during hypnosis are forgotten, or where past memories are unable to be recalled.
- Source amnesia is a memory disorder in which someone can recall certain information, but they do not know where or how they obtained it.
- Memory distrust syndrome is a term invented by the psychologist Gisli Gudjonsson to describe a situation where someone is unable to trust their own memory.
- Aging - Many aging persons gradually develop noticeable difficulties in memory: at first for names, then for events, and sometimes even occasionally for spatial relationships. This widely experienced, so-called benign type of forgetfulness bears no proven relationship to degenerative dementia, but may be a forewarning because some of the similarities are hard to overlook. Aside from severe head trauma, the most common causes of severe memory loss are degenerative dementia; brain anoxia (lack of oxygen) or ischemia (lack of blood); alcoholic nutritional disease; and various drug intoxications.
Amnesia can also be caused by acute or long-term alcohol use. In particular, heavy alcohol consumption combined with poor diet and low intake of thiamine leads to a partially reversible syndrome called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms of confusion, ataxia of gait, and involuntary movement of the eye may be reversed by parenteral administration of thiamine. Even though only about 20% recover from the associated amnesia, some researchers believe that oral thiamine administered to alcoholics may act as a prophylactic. In a report of a study of a 68-year-old man who had a slow onset of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, the authors noted that an immediate high concentration of thiamine maintained wakefulness and level of consciousness.
Medication Side Effects
- Benzodiazepines (Valium, Diazepam) are a class of drugs which are primarily used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Benodiazepines are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of drugs sold. One of the problems associated with long-term use of these drugs, particularly in the elderly, is memory loss. Because aging is inherently associated with some degree of increasing memory impairment and because the elderly population is prone to insomnia, prescribing benzodiazepines is inadvisable. In fact, benzodiazepines are specifically administered to patients prior to surgery because they cause anterograde amnesia. Patients who have not been given a benzodiazepine drug preoperatively have complained about remembering their surgery, which leads to lawsuits.
- Adverse side effects, including amnesia-like symptoms, can also result from a too-high or too-low dosage of medications, an unusual reaction to medications, or from a combination of medications. In the older population, it is not uncommon for individuals to be taking many different medications that have been prescribed by several different physicians in addition to taking over-the-counter preparations. Be certain that your primary physician is aware of all prescription and nonprescription medications that you take.
- European doctors prescribe the drugs piracetam and vasopressin to help people who have amnesia to recover their memories. Published studies show that the recovery of memory in amnesia patients can take from several hours to a few days when vasopressin or piracetam or both are used
- In studies spanning two decades, piracetam has been shown to enhance memory, particularly when used in combination with choline.
- The recommended dosage of vasopressin is at least 16 IU a day, usually in the form of a nasal spray, although physicians may prescribe higher amounts to treat acute amnesia. A recommended dose of piracetam is 4800 mg daily until memory is restored.
- Nimodipine is especially recommended for head trauma victims. Nimodipine (brand name Nimotop) is a calcium channel blocker specific to the central nervous system. It prevents movement of calcium into the cells of blood vessels, thereby relaxing the vessels and increasing the supply of blood and oxygen. It dramatically improves cerebral blood flow. Nimodipine is an FDA-approved drug used to prevent and treat problems caused by a burst blood vessel around the brain, but it has largely been ignored by most neurologists treating victims of stroke and other age-related neurological diseases.
- The most commonly used memory-enhancing nutrients are choline, lecithin, and phosphatidylcholine which are precursors to the chemical neurotransmitter acetylcholine that carries messages between brain cells. Because acetylcholine helps brain cells communicate with each other, it plays an important role in learning and memory. Acetylcholine deficiency can predispose a person to a wide range of neurological diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and stroke.
- Ginkgo and Vitamin B12
- Ginkgo biloba and vitamin B12 may be helpful in treating memory loss. Extracts from Ginkgo biloba have been shown to thin the blood and improve blood flow to the brain, protect against free radicals, and improve memory.
- Picamilon is a compound of niacin and the neurotransmitter GABA. The niacin in Picamilon acts as a nontoxic carrier molecule for GABA to make it easier for GABA to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and act within the brain. Picamilon improves circulation to the brain, thereby enhancing cognitive functioning.
- Pregnenolone and DHEA improve brain cell activity and enhance memory. (Pregnenolone is converted into DHEA in the body.) DHEA is the most plentiful steroid hormone in the human body, but its exact function is unknown. What is known is that DHEA concentration plummets with age: its daily production drops from 30 mg at age 20 to less than 6 mg at age 80. DHEA is naturally synthesized in abundance in young people from pregnenolone in the brain and the adrenal glands. It is known to affect the excitability of neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory.
- Findings suggest that DHEA enhances memory by facilitating the induction of neural plasticity, the condition that permits the neurons (nerve cells of the brain) to change in order to record new memories. Studies have shown that DHEA not only improves memory deficits, but also relieves depression in older people and increases perceived physical and psychological well-being. DHEA has been shown to help preserve youthful neurological function. Together, pregnenolone and DHEA help to maintain the ability of brain cells to store and retrieve information in short-term memory.
- Choline, lecithin, and phosphatidylcholine are best taken early in the day to maximize improvement in brain productivity throughout the day. Suggested dosage ranges are 1000-3000 mg a day of choline or 10,000 mg a day of lecithin. A popular way of obtaining several different forms of choline is a dietary supplement called Cognitex. Those with amnesia would take 12 Cognitex capsules a day until symptoms improved.
- Both ginkgo biloba and vitamin B12 have been shown to improve memory.
- Ginkgo, 120 mg a day.
- Vitamin B12 in the form of methylcobalamin, one or more 5-mg lozenges daily.
- Picamilon improves neuronal circulation, 100 mg 3 times daily.
- Thiamine (vitamin B1) is indicated for alcohol-induced memory loss, one 500-mg capsule daily with meals.
- DHEA and pregnenolone are steroidal hormones that improve brain cell activity and improve memory. The suggested supplementation range for pregnenolone is 50-150 mg a day in 3 equal doses. The recommended dosage for DHEA is 25-50 mg a day. Women usually need less DHEA than men. DHEA is contraindicated in both men and women with hormone-related cancers.
- Vasopressin, 16 IU a day (nasal spray) and/or pir-acetam in the dose of 4800 mg daily.
- For alcoholic cognitive impairment and possibly for memory loss from other causes, cranio-electroneural stimulation (CES) 3 times a day for 45 minutes.
- Chelation therapy is a procedure performed in a doctor's office. An infusion of the amino acid EDTA is given intravenously with a small needle to remove heavy metals or to improve circulation in vascular diseases. Chelation therapy may be considered for amnesia caused by atherosclerosis.
- For head trauma victims, Nimotop in the dose of 30 mg 4 times daily.
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