You're rushing out the door to an important meeting when suddenly, you feel like you forgot something. No matter how hard you try, you can't remember what it was. Sound familiar? Anyone's memory can be fuzzy, but when you start to forget more and more, amnesia is possible. There are several kinds of amnesia, all with different causes. It can be temporary or permanent, and you may experience partial or total memory loss. Some have trouble remembering the past, called retrograde amnesia, while others can't retain new information, called anterograde amnesia [1,2].
Common characteristics of amnesia
Amnesia symptoms depend on its type and cause but may include the following.
- Memory loss
- Not being able to recognize faces and places
- Inability to process or store new information or memories
- Generation of false memories
- After recovery, people have no memory of their amnesia episode
If being forgetful happens more often than expected, it's time to see a physician and rule out a serious underlying medical condition. If your episodes are infrequent, however, there are treatments available.
Causes of amnesia can be broken down into three main groups — neurologic causes, lifestyle causes, and medical conditions. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and if and when you should see a physician.
Direct injury or stress to the brain can result in amnesia.
- Brain damage: Damage to the brain, especially on the hippocampus, can affect memory. This part of the brain can be compromised if there is a lack of oxygen for a prolonged amount of time.
- Stress or trauma: Whether you experience physical trauma, injury, or witness a stressful situation, amnesia is possible. Amnesia explains why some people in car accidents never remember the ordeal .
The following habits can result in temporary amnesia.
- Alcohol: Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause amnesia.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency: Amnesia can be due to pernicious anemia or lack of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and a decrease in its level can cause amnesia .
Medical conditions that may result in amnesia include the following.
- Hypothyroidism: A less active thyroid gland is said to cause forgetfulness and other memory issues .
- Medications: Common medications given to people for surgery, like anesthesia, are believed to cause amnesia. Benzodiazepines are also linked to amnesia.
Remember that amnesia is a broad condition. Try to ask a family member or a friend to record your episodes of forgetfulness and share this information with your physician. Amnesia can be frightening if you forget your identity or your surroundings, known as transient global amnesia. It has no known cause or cure and usually resolves within hours; however, you will still need support from friends or family if you are known to have these episodes. Seek immediate medical attention to rule out causes of global amnesia such as stroke or seizures.
7 Possible Amnesia Conditions
The list below shows results from the use of our quiz by Buoy users who experienced amnesia. This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Traumatic brain injury
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain.
Top Symptoms: new headache, irritability, clear runny nose, vision changes, general numbness
Symptoms that always occur with traumatic brain injury: head injury
Urgency: Emergency medical service
Acute stress disorder
Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a psychological condition caused by trauma, especially by any violent attack such as robbery, assault, or combat. "Acute" means that clear symptoms appear within days of the traumatic event. Most susceptible are those with a previous history o...
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurological disorder that slowly destroys memory and the ability to think clearly. As symptoms worsen, patients are often unable to perform basic tasks.
Top Symptoms: trouble sleeping, forgetfulness, anxiety, aggression or confusion, anxiety, irritability, depressed mood
Symptoms that always occur with alzheimer's disease: forgetfulness, anxiety, aggression or confusion
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Dissociative amnesia is a condition in which a person becomes unable to remember events from a part of their life. It affects about one percent to three percent of people in the general population and has a few main forms that have different effects. Generally, people with dis...
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, or WKS, is a neurologic disorder. The names represent the acute stage of the illness, called Wernicke's Encephalopathy, and the chronic stage, called Korsakoff Syndrome.
WKS is caused by a deficiency of thiamine, or vitamin B1. It is most often seen in alcoholics; anyone who has had a poor diet, eating disorder, or weight-loss surgery; and those with serious illness such as cancer or AIDS.
Acute symptoms are primarily physical and include abnormal, uncoordinated walking and standing; flickering eye movements called nystagmus; and damage to the heart and nervous system. There may also be profound drowsiness that can lead to coma.
Chronic symptoms are primarily mental and include short-term memory loss and dementia-like behavior.
The acute stages of WKS can be a life-threatening medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and blood tests.
Treatment involves simply adding thiamine supplements to the diet, as well as treating any remaining symptoms to aid in recovery.
Top Symptoms: nausea or vomiting, leg numbness, feeling confused and not making sense while talking, amnesia, jerky, unsteady, or uncoordinated walk
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Depersonalization/derealization identity disorder
Depersonalization/derealization identity disorder are two types of dissociative disorders. This means the person's thoughts and feelings become disassociated – or disconnected – from reality.
Depersonalization and derealization are similar and often occur together.
Depersonalization means the person feels no connection to their own thoughts, emotions, or experiences.
Derealization means the person feels that the world around them is unreal, dreamlike, or entirely imaginary.
Anyone can have a dissociative disorder, though it is most common among adolescents who have experienced traumatic events.
Symptoms include a sense of detachment from the self, as though standing aside and watching events happen to someone else; memory loss regarding certain events; and significant depression and anxiety. The symptoms may come and go.
Dissociative disorders can severely affect a person's quality of life and ability of function normally. A medical provider should be seen for referral to the appropriate specialist.
Diagnosis is made through patient history. Tests may be done to rule out any physical condition.
Treatment involves psychotherapy and sometimes medications such as antidepressants or anxiolytics.
Top Symptoms: depersonalization or derealization, derealization, impaired social or occupational functioning, ringing in the ears, amnesia
Symptoms that always occur with depersonalization/derealization identity disorder: depersonalization or derealization
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Encephalitis is irritation and swelling (inflammation) of the brain, most often due to viral infections. Encephalitis caused by the herpes simplex virus is the leading cause. Several other causes of encephalitis (St. Louis, California, Japanese and Eastern Equine encephalitis infections) are transmitted by bites from an infected mosquito.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, being severely ill, loss of appetite, new headache, vomiting
Symptoms that always occur with viral encephalitis: being severely ill
Urgency: Hospital emergency room
Amnesia Treatments and Relief
When to see a doctor
If any of the following resonate with your current condition, seek medical attention.
- Amnesia symptoms after a head injury
- Severe confusion or disorientation
- You are unable to recognize close friends and family members
- You are unable to identify yourself
- You are unaware of the current date or events
Treatments for amnesia
Treatment of amnesia depends on the underlying causes. The following treatments and preventative measures are currently used in the fight against amnesia symptoms.
- Detoxification: Once toxins leave the body, memory issues should subside .
- Meditation: This calming practice can help the nervous system function properly .
- Sleep schedule: Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time, making sure you get an adequate eight hours of sleep each night.
- Occupational therapy: This treatment is suitable for persistent amnesia symptoms. It helps people learn new things and adjust to a new lifestyle .
*Note: Amnesia caused by traumas normally subsides over time and without medical intervention. However, in cases of severe injuries, amnesia may be permanent.
To better prevent episodes of amnesia, keep the following in mind.
- Avoid alcohol
- Wear protective gear when suggested
- Stay mentally and physically active
- Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated
FAQs About Amnesia
Here are some frequently asked questions about amnesia.
What causes amnesia?
Amnesia is caused by many conditions, as memory is a complex process. Generally speaking, amnesia is due to a lack of blood flow to the brain, which often causes fainting, epileptic seizures that stop the brain from "recording," or psychological disorders in which memories are repressed . It may occur following trauma to a particular area of the brain as well.
Can amnesia be caused by stress?
Psychogenic disorders can cause amnesia. Essentially, a psychogenic disorder is a disorder that is caused by a mental manifestation of stress. Psychogenic symptoms are true experiences — they are authentic and often out of the control of the individual experiencing them — but do not have a clear physical cause. Extreme stress can cause psychogenic amnesia, as seen in children who undergo trauma and stop speaking.
Can amnesia be reversed?
Yes, amnesia can resolve depending on the underlying diagnosis. In many cases, your memory will return spontaneously following a mild concussion or drug-induced memory loss. Other common causes of reversible memory loss include arterial ischemia (or blockage of an artery), venous congestion (inadequate flow through veins), migraines, and epileptic seizures. However, memory loss from dementia is usually irreversible.
What part of the brain is affected by amnesia?
Memory is a complex process, and different types of amnesia originate in different places. The mediobasal temporal lobe and the hippocampus are the most frequently associated structures. The hippocampus is primarily the part of the brain that stores memories, though these memories are stored throughout the higher cortices of the brain (the frontal lobes). We have a hippocampus on both sides of the brain and loss of either will cause memory loss.
How long does amnesia last?
Amnesia may resolve in less than 24 hours or may persist for a lifetime depending on the cause. Temporary and short-lived loss of blood flow, limited epileptic seizures, and psychogenic amnesia tend to be temporary. However, permanent injury to the brain tends to cause amnesia to exist longer or be permanent. The diagnosis and reason why you have amnesia will determine how long the symptoms will last. If the structures that hold memories are permanently shut down, it may be temporary; if they are destroyed, it can be much more difficult to develop new memories.
Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Amnesia
To diagnose this condition, your doctor would likely ask the following questions:
- Are you having any difficulty walking?
- Are your symptoms causing difficulty at work, socializing, or spending time with friends & family?
- Do you feel detached or outside of your own body?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
The above questions are also covered by our A.I. Health Assistant.
If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions
Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your amnesia
Amnesia Symptom Checker Statistics
People who have experienced amnesia have also experienced:
- 8% Fatigue
- 5% Headache
- 4% Difficulty Concentrating
People who have experienced amnesia were most often matched with:
- 53% Traumatic Brain Injury
- 23% Acute Stress Disorder
- 23% Alzheimer'S Disease
People who have experienced amnesia had symptoms persist for:
- 72% Over a month
- 11% Less than a day
- 5% Less than a week
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).
Amnesia Symptom Checker
Take a quiz to find out what might be causing your amnesia
- Retrograde Amnesia. Elsevier: ScienceDirect. ScienceDirect Link
- Anterograde Amnesia. Elsevier: ScienceDirect. ScienceDirect Link
- Dissociative Amnesia. Psychology Today. Published June, 2017. Psychology Today Link
- Vitamin B12. National Institutes of Health: Office of Dietary Supplements. Published June 24, 2011. ODS Link
- The lowdown on Thyroid Slowdown. Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publising. Published March, 2014. Harvard Health Publishing
- Pappas S. Alcoholics' Brains Recover Quickly After Detox. Live Science. Published October 16, 2012. Live Science Link
- Wanucha G. Mindfulness as Medicine. UW Medicine: Memory & Brain Wellness Center. Published February 19, 2016. MBWC Link
- Nott MT, Chapparo C, Heard R. Effective Occupational Therapy Intervention with Adults Demonstrating Agitation During Post-Traumatic Amnesia. Brain Injury. 2008;22(9):669-683. Pubmed Link
- Janyna MM, Robin H. Untreated hypertension can lead to memory loss by cutting down on blood flow to the brain. Neurology. Published Apr 2005. Neurology Link
Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.