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Amnesia means memory loss - more precisely, a state in which stored memories or reminders of current actions are disturbed or even lost. Firstly, this state goes far beyond everyday forgetfulness and secondly is not due to the fact that other contents of consciousness come to the fore.
The disorder can have both organic and neurological causes. Organic causes include brain damage from injuries or certain drugs. Amnesia can be a symptom of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's.
There are also psychological triggers: mental confusion, post-traumatic stress, borderline syndrome, multiple personality as well as non-specific psychological defense mechanisms.
The two main types are retrograde - i.e. declining - and anterograde amnesia. With the declining form, the sick can no longer remember what happened before a certain point in time - usually the time of a damaging accident, an operation, etc. Anterograd, on the other hand, refers to a mental state in which those affected cannot remember events that occurred after a certain event happen.
Retrograde amnesia thus erases long-term memory; the anterograde form prevents contents of the short-term memory from being stored in the long-term memory.
The human memory model
Memory is a key aspect of intelligence - it gives us the ability to think through the past and plan the future. What we commonly refer to as memory is our long-term memory, but there are also important short-term memories and sensory memories that the brain works through before long-term memory stores them.
The different forms of memory all have their own mode of operandi, but they all work together in the process of remembering, and all three steps are necessary to build a sustainable memory.
The sensual memory
Sensual memory denotes immediate memory - it is an ultra-short-term memory. Here we receive information through the five senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. The senses engage when something prompts a sensual answer - for example a strong smell.
The most important areas of sensory memory are visual memory and acoustic memory. The visual memory captures images that we see less than a second, the acoustic memory sounds that we hear for up to a few seconds.
The second basic component of our memory system is the short-term memory - the working memory. Most of the information that reaches the short-term memory disappears completely, but the time until it disappears is significantly longer than in the sensory memory.
How we store the information does not necessarily depend on its sensual form. A word we can see, for example, can get from the visual sensory memory into the acoustic short-term memory. We also speak here of auditory-verbal-linguistic memory - hearing, words and speech are difficult to separate.
The third main component of our memory is long-term storage. This memory differs from the previous one in that the information does not disappear to the same extent.
Keeping something in short-term memory for a certain time may lead to storing it in permanent memory as a long-term memory. The information is repeated. Repetition, however, is less important than giving meaning to the information with stored knowledge.
Once information is stored in long-term memory, it can remain there for a very long time - sometimes for the rest of life. Many factors influence the length and intensity of the information stored: How important does the person concerned consciously or unconsciously assess the incident? How long has it been since he last remembered it? Does his social environment and place of life remind him of what happened?
Long-term memories are not a historical chronicle and extremely “opportunistic”. Instead of archiving events authentically, it assembles stored impressions so that they can be used for the tasks of the present. In this way, people can be persuaded of fictitious “memories”.
Specific triggers for amnesia
Any brain injury can theoretically cause amnesia if it affects the areas of the brain that store memory. Many amnesias cause trauma - physically and mentally. Other amnesias are the result of toxic substances, malnutrition or brain tumors.
Amnesia, which results from physical damage, is usually triggered by a lack of oxygen in the brain. Other triggers are alcohol abuse for a long time (Kosakow syndrome), Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
In Korsakov's syndrome, alcohol has destroyed essential areas of the brain. The brain continues to make “meaningful patterns”, but cannot use memories. So it replaces memories with inventions, which the alcoholic is often unaware of. He accuses friends of things they have never done, he tells of trips to countries he has never been to, and at the same time he no longer recognizes the familiar.
Dissociative amnesia is caused by emotional trauma or shock, be it a terrorist attack, experience of sexual abuse, or a violent crime.
Natural disasters, earthquakes, storm surges, etc. can also trigger this form of amnesia.
The risk of suffering from a memory loss is similarly high with the various triggers - in the case of alcohol abuse such as brain injuries or head trauma.
The consequences of amnesia are evident in everyday life: daily actions, personal relationships, the social environment - everything changes for those affected. It also affects work and school when someone suffers from amnesia. If you notice that you are showing the first symptoms of amnesia, you should see a doctor.
The core symptom is memory loss; some lose only part of their memory, others their entire identity stored as a memory. Affected people can also reconstruct events incorrectly or mix different events with one another, for example because they can no longer distinguish between time periods and locations: this becomes clear, for example, in people who tell stories of their neighbors after a stroke, but do not perceive that they Experiences 40 years ago.
Accompanying symptoms are nerve problems, lack of concentration and disorientation.
The symptoms depend on how the disorder developed. Most of those affected have anterograde amnesia, they lose their short-term memory.
When alcohol or drugs cause memory loss, these people forget what happened during the period of acute intoxication. You will only be confused as long as the drug continues to work. However, alcohol and meta-amphetamines also destroy brain areas in the long term: those affected no longer have only a “film tear” for the time of intoxication, but suffer from a general memory loss.
When diagnosed, the doctor does a thorough examination to find out what is causing the memory loss: Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia, depression, or a brain tumor.
Computed tomography and a Magnnet resonance imaging method provide information about whether there is a brain injury. If the person suffers from fever, a urine and blood analysis is the order of the day. The doctor takes blood samples to determine whether there are signs of encephalitis, meningeal encephalitis, brain abscesses, or encephalomyelitis.
If there is no fever and the person concerned associates the lost memories with recent events, other “suspects” come to the fore: Alzheimer's, arteriosclerosis in the brain, chronic alcoholism or brain tumors.
Types of amnesia
Retrograde amnesia occurs very rarely in its pure form; it is usually associated with anterograde amnesia. In its pure form, the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores the long-term memory, is damaged.
The retrograde and anterograde form often mix. Seldom is there a memory of events that happened long ago, but there are no memories of events that happened shortly before the traumatic episode.
Those who suffer from this form of memory loss cannot create new memories. He forgets the recent past: he doesn't know who he talked to in the supermarket half an hour earlier when he gets in the car, he forgets where he was going while driving. For example, those affected repeat questions and comments because they forget that they had already asked.
This form is typical of drug abuse - some benzodiazepines trigger it with force, or it follows a traumatic brain injury like an operation that damaged the hippocampus. A heart attack, lack of oxygen or an epileptic seizure often also result in this form of memory loss.
More rarely, such amnesias are the result of a shock or an emotional disorder. In some mental disorders, anterograde amnesias are part of the clinical picture: In all dissociative disorders, memory loss is even typical at times, with borderline syndrome, with multiple personality, with post-traumatic strass syndrome and in general with traumatization.
People who develop schizophrenia also suffer from this amnesia - albeit for a limited time. As a rule, however, your memories have not completely disappeared, but are strongly distorted.
Anterogradian memory loss sometimes prevents the recognition of things, but not the feeling of familiarity. Affected people often feel that they know an object shown, but do not know how.
Depending on the level of the disorder, they can regain lost memories by performing actions related to them.
A dramatic form of this amnesia is the sudden loss of memory. Without warning, the person concerned loses their memory. As soon as the symptoms appear, they are over - usually in 24 hours.
During this time, those affected can recognize their family members, retain their intellectual abilities and try to regain their memories: they repeatedly ask about everything that affects their environment.
The exact cause is unknown, but the trigger is usually acute emotional or physical stress. One thesis is that the brain temporarily “works on the back burner” because it feels overwhelmed.
Drug and alcohol abuse
Anyone who has ever drunk too much alcohol knows the “film tear”. He no longer knows what he was doing last night and only has blurry images in his head. He painstakingly reconstructs what happens when he visits the locations of his feast, fragments of memory reappear.
However, once the alcohol has been depleted, the memory of the time of intoxication does not reappear, but the memory of the present works normally again.
Midazolam, flunitrazepam, triazolam, nimetazepan and temazepam are remedies that all limit memory.
Prevent memory loss
We can prevent a brain injury that causes the disorder by protecting ourselves from accidents like this: we can wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, fasten our seat belts while driving or do not drink alcohol when driving.
Avoiding excessive alcohol and drug use also reduces the risk of brain damage.
Viruses that cause brain infections should be combated immediately and aggressively with medication.
People who suffer from a dissociative disorder often don't seem sick. They work in everyday life and at work. But if they get a dissociative boost that can last for hours or months, they lose control.
At first they seem “fluffy” to outsiders, they come home late, move things in their apartment or do not carry out orders. If the dissociative phase lasts longer, for example, those affected travel to distant cities, develop a new identity, start a new job and do not remember what has changed in their lives.
Dissociative disorders are characterized by an insecure identity, a lack of or blurred self-awareness, and, again and again, interrupted memories and a collapse of the memory.
Triggers are traumatic events: war, accidents, extreme violence that those affected either experienced or witnessed.
Alcohol and drugs such as metaamphetamine can also trigger these dissociative conditions.
The main symptom of this dissociative form is the inability to remember past experiences or personal information. Some people with this disorder also suffer from depression or anxiety disorders.
Dissociative disorders are not detached from general traumas. A selective loss of memory in a traumatic experience is a “first aid program” for the brain.
Those affected, whether as victims or witnesses of violence, abuse or disasters, must survive in the situation. That is why the brain filters the terrible experiences and "pushes them aside".
We all know this to a certain extent: if a bee stings us on a hike, it is better not to concentrate on the pain, but on the path ahead.
Abused children or hostages in a bank robbery face a threat from which there is no immediate way out. In order not to be overwhelmed by emotions in this situation and thus unable to act, the brain splits off the horror.
In the event of a trauma, this split goes so far that the sufferers are later plagued by nightmares again and again, but hardly remember the moment itself.
Every lawyer knows the accused, the witnesses, but also the plaintiffs in proceedings that state that they can no longer remember important events surrounding the crime. Often it is targeted lies.
Those affected do not suffer from amnesia, rather they remember exactly what happened, but they simulate a memory loss: to protect the perpetrator or themselves, not to admit intimate details from their private lives, or because they want to forget what is happening .
The line between such deliberate lies and real memory loss is sometimes blurred. Our memories are less a chronicle than a kit from which the brain builds meaningful stories.
The same people often tell the same story in different variations when their life situation changes. This is rarely a deliberate distortion, rather details come to the fore that previously seemed unimportant.
We can also “consciously” forget: We no longer talk about an ex-partner, throw our things in the trash, move to another city and feed our brains with new experiences. Our unconscious is now slowly developing new patterns with which we move around the world, and we are assuming this new identity.
This “storytelling” appears as a pathology in borderline syndrome. People suffering from this disorder are highly suggestive and manipulate others. It is often impossible for them to distinguish between their constructions and real memories.
They appear like chronic liars, but their lies come from a fragmented identity in which they cannot distinguish the reality of memory from fantasy.
These people go through phases in which they do not know who they are, where they are, and what they were in the past.
Victims of torture, people under the control of psychosects, child soldiers and forced prostitutes have one thing in common: those in whose power they are trying to erase the identity of the victim and replace it with an identity in the interests of the perpetrator.
The victims should forget the memory of their previous life. To do this, the perpetrators subject them to rituals that condition the brains of those affected - every terrorist system knows countless methods for this.
The perpetrators isolate the victims from everything that reminds them of their old lives, lock them up in dark rooms so that they do not receive any stimuli from the outside world. The only information that comes to those affected is the repeated instruction from the torturers.
Victims are humiliated to forget their identity: traffickers are repeatedly raped by traffickers, and at some point the raped's brain saves that experience as a pattern, while older positive patterns are lost.
Victims, whether tortured political opponents, sexually enslaved or children transformed into killers, are now going through phases that correspond to the dissociative disorder.
The younger and more unstable a victim is, the more effective brainwashing is.
Amnesias as a result of such brainwashing can sometimes be reversed. For example, child soldiers are known to have recovered part of their old identity after returning to their old family.
But often they are “hopeless cases”. They were not only victims and perpetrators themselves, but their amnesia is fed by various sources: they are just as traumatized by violence that they injured as by violence that they wielded; they poisoned themselves excessively with drugs and alcohol. They also deliberately split off memories.
Home remedies for amnesia
Amnesia as a result of malnutrition is a mass problem in many developing countries. Diet plans play a crucial role here. If you suffer from such a disorder, which is also due to malnutrition, you should definitely get the nutrients so that the brain can function normally.
Those affected should avoid coffee as well as black tea, industrial sugar and white flour. Relaxation exercises and simple physical activities also help them.
Apples are "miracle weapons" in the fight against amnesia that results from malnutrition. They contain vitamins and minerals to a high degree. Eating a single apple a day helps to awaken memories and reduces mental confusion.
Walnuts are powerful antioxidants and also full of saturated fats. They also contain lecithin and vitamin B, which boost memory. Walnuts, combined with figs and raisins, strengthen the nervous system.
Rosemary also means "herb of memory". In Ayurveda, it serves to correct forgetfulness and exhaustion. Rosemary tea also helps against the less serious memory problems of older people.
Sage is also an excellent way to keep your memory busy. It affects the area of the brain that transports experiences into long-term memory. In general, sage supports the nerve coordination of the brain and thus arranges mental confusion. (Somayeh Ranjbar, translated into German by Dr. Utz Anhalt)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch
- Merck and Co., Inc .: Amnesia (accessed: August 16, 2019), msdmanuals.com
- Amnesia self-help: Introductory information about amnesia (accessed: 16.08.2019), amnesia-society.com
- German Society for Neurology (DGN): S1 guideline transient global amnesia (= amnestic episode) as of May 2017, dgn.org
- Mayo Clinic: Amnesia (access: August 16, 2019), mayoclinic.org
- Cleveland Clinic: Dissociative Amnesia (access: August 16, 2019), my.clevelandclinic.org
ICD codes for this disease: F04, F44, G45, R41ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.