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What Are the Effects of Epilepsy on Memory?

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  • Written By: Brian Marchetti
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that causes seizures as a result of abnormal neuronal activity in the brain, which can affect areas of the brain responsible for memory. When an epileptic seizure occurs, the neurotransmitters that connect with the area of the brain that records memories are interrupted. Short-term memory loss after a seizure is quite common — sufferers may not remember where they are or what they were doing; sometimes, complete amnesia can occur for periods of up to an hour. Eventually, reoccurring seizures can cause damage to the memory areas of the brain and result in permanent memory loss. The effects of epilepsy on memory can affect both the areas that store visual memories as well as those that store verbal memories. The long-term effects of epilepsy on memory can result in language and speech difficulties as well. The effects of epilepsy on memory are well documented and those who have the disorder report memory loss more frequently than those who suffer from other neurological problems.

The brain records memories through a process known as encoding. Information is divided into two categories, short-term memory (STM) which recalls information for only a few minutes, and long-term memory (LTM) which stores information for longer periods of time. The brain requires constant monitoring in order for memory to function properly. The occurrence of epileptic episodes causes interruptions in the process.

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Memory loss almost always occurs during an epileptic event, but its extent varies from person to person. Those who suffer from intense seizures usually report no memory of the event. Others experience a condition known as anterograde amnesia where the brain loses the ability to process new information. This condition typically resolves itself over time. Ictic amnesia describes an episode where a person interacts normally within their environment during a seizure but has no memory of their interaction.

Over the long term, seizures can cause permanent damage to the brain. Epilepsy normally affects specific areas of the brain, and repeated incidents typically cause damage to the brain tissue. Damage also can occur between seizures because of the constant unusual electric activity in an epileptic brain.

As different areas of the brain suffer from injury, different types of memory loss can occur. A person whose brain is affected on the right side may experience problems with visual memory, whereas damage to the left side affects verbal memory causing limitations in writing and speech. Epilepsy attacking the frontal lobe typically leads to a person’s inability to focus attention.

While a cure for epilepsy remains unknown, there are several treatments that can limit the affects of epilepsy on memory. Doctors typically prescribe anticonvulsants in order to control or completely eliminate seizures, thus preserving brain function and memory. In extreme cases, surgery may be required when medication does little to stop the recurrence of seizures.

Those who suffer from the affects of epilepsy on memory often seek out memory training as well. In general terms, memory improvement is not possible, but training with mnemonics and other memory aids can improve daily living. Training must be individually designed and specialized in order to treat the specific effects of epilepsy on memory.

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