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Definition

Amnesia is when a person cannot recall new information or past events. It may go away in a short time or be lasting.

Causes

Most memory problems are caused by damage to the brain. It may be due to an accident, an illness like a brain infection, stroke, or certain medicines. Sometimes the cause is not known.

Rarely, an emotional event can cause a problem called dissociative amnesia.

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk are:

  • Head and brain injuries, such as from a car accident
  • Brain damage from problems like:
    • Alcohol or substance use disorders
    • Stroke
    • An illness that affects the brain, such as encephalitis
  • Complications from procedures such as:
  • Dementia or Alzheimer disease
  • Some medicines, such as those used as anesthesia
  • Certain changes in the body, such as changes in blood glucose levels or a lack of oxygen
  • Seizures
  • Recent physical or emotional pain or trauma

Areas of the Brain Affected by Dementia

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Symptoms

A person may have:

  • Problems recalling new or past information
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • False memories

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and health history. The doctor will ask about your memory loss and when it started. A loved one or family member may answer these questions if the person cannot.

These tests may be done to look for a cause:

  • A physical and neurological exam
  • Blood tests to look for things like infections
  • Images of the brain may be taken to look for damage. This can be done with:
  • An EEG to test the brain’s electrical activity

Treatment

Any cause will need to be treated. The problem may go away on its own. A therapist or support group may be needed for those whose amnesia does not go away.

Prevention

There are no current guidelines to prevent this problem.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Neurology
https://www.aan.com

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
https://www.familydoctor.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Neurological Sciences Federation
http://www.cnsfederation.org

Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Amnesia. Better Health Channel website. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/amnesia. Accessed September 4, 2020.

Amnesias. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/function-and-dysfunction-of-the-cerebral-lobes/amnesias. Accessed September 4, 2020.

Kirshner HS. Transient global amnesia: a brief review and update. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2011 Dec;11(6):578-582.

Memory loss (amnesia). NHS Choices website. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/memory-loss-amnesia. Accessed September 4, 2020.

Transient global amnesia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/transient-global-amnesia. Accessed September 4, 2020.

Transient global amnesia. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/function-and-dysfunction-of-the-cerebral-lobes/transient-global-amnesia. Accessed September 4, 2020.

Treating amnesia. Brain & Life—American Academy of Neurology website. Available at: https://www.brainandlife.org/the-magazine/article/app/4/4/20. Accessed September 4, 2020.

Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Adrian Preda, MD  Last Updated: 2/19/2021