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What Is Retrograde Amnesia?

Brain injuries can cause retrograde amnesia.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 June 2014
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Retrograde amnesia is the temporary or permanent forgetting of things that occur before the event where amnesia was caused, which is often some type of brain injury. This form of amnesia could cover a a small or large portion of a person’s life and, in severe forms, might include the amnesiac’s inability to recognize loved ones or remember how to do things in which he was expert. It usually doesn’t mean forgetting everything, and it also doesn’t have to fully extend very far back through a person’s life. Some people can have mild retrograde amnesia and simply have no recall of events a few hours preceding the event resulting in the amnesiac condition.

There are many forms of amnesia, but retrograde amnesia is often contrasted to anterograde amnesia. The latter is when people have trouble remembering things after some form of trauma or some treatments like drug therapy have occurred. They might have total recall of all events prior to the memory-impairing event or some people experience retrograde and anterograde amnesia at the same time. In other words, memory before and after trauma or treatment is impaired to a certain degree.

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Causes of retrograde amnesia are generally attributed to injuries in the brain, particularly the hippocampus and less specifically the temporal lobes. The ability for a person to recover from such damage largely depends on how well these regions can heal, and with severe cases, recovery isn’t always predictable. There isn't a single or standard treatment for this condition, though a number of treatments might be attempteed to help a person regain their memory. Most important, though, is doing everything possible to promote brain healing to avoid damaging the areas of the brain that appear most linked to memory.

Sometimes, very mild retrograde amnesia occurs and doesn’t require treatment. A person might have a head injury and lose a few hours before the incident. Yet almost all other memory remains intact. In these cases, the head injury is clearly treated, but there wouldn’t be attempts to recover the memories of the hour or two prior to the head injury, unless it was somehow important.

Similarly, some medicines given as anesthesia may result in mild amnesia before they were given. People might have no recall of being wheeled into an operating room or talking to family just before a surgery. This isn’t always retrograde amnesia. If the person was on pain or anesthetic medications prior to getting to an operating room, those medications may be responsible for altering memory.

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Discuss this Article

christensen
Post 4

Sometimes people develop a condition called dissociative fugue, where they pick up and move to a place they've never been. Then they can't remember who they are or where they used to live. They often end up in hospitals or police stations because they are severely confused.

Sunny27
Post 3

Oasis11 - Wow that is terrible. It sounds like this lady had both anterograde and retrograde amnesia because she not only could not remember her past, but because of her brain damage she could not form new memories at all either.

This is really hard because she must have needed so much more speech,occupational, and physical therapy because her mind could not retain information.

oasis11
Post 2

@Cafe41 - I just can’t believe that no one even reported this man missing. I heard of a case about a lady that also had retrograde memory loss and she had to learn how to do everything all over again.

She says that the last thing that she remembered was that someone gave her a pill that she later took and it put her in a coma. This coma did so much damage to her brain that she had to take speech and occupational therapy in order to learn how to talk and even write her name.

She said that she has no long term memory and her short term memory is almost nonexistent. In fact, she forgets everything that someone has said to her moments after they leave. She also has no childhood memories so she cannot even talk about how she grew up.

She is seeing a therapist in order to deal with her situation and is coping by videotaping everything so that she can replay the tapes and hope to improve some of her memory.

She was also obsessed with taking pictures because she knows that she will not even remember that she saw something or went to an event. I know that they use picture therapy for patients with dementia in hopes of having something trigger a past memory, so maybe this will work as an effective retrograde amnesia treatment for these patients as well.

cafe41
Post 1

I have to say that the idea of having severe retrograde memory loss is frightening. I was reading a story the other day about a man that was beaten and mugged and virtually left to die, but a police officer recovered him and they were able to take him to the hospital and save his life.

Since he had retrograde amnesia symptoms and could not remember anything about his past and did not have wallet that showed his identity, everyone thought that he may have been homeless.

They even did fingerprint testing to see if he had a criminal record, but he did not. I can’t even begin to imagine not knowing what your own name is and having no virtual memory of your past. He is now working with psychiatrists that will use hypnosis to try to recover some of his past to see who he is.

He was on a talk show and they even had a professional linguist that tried to pinpoint where he was from based on his accent. They said that he was probably from a southern state that bordered a Midwestern state like Oklahoma or Arkansas. It was a really interesting and sad story.

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