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How Amnesia Works

Living with Amnesia

Living with amnesia focuses on building habits to follow rather than relying on medical remedies. To cope with his extreme amnesia, Clive Wearing began keeping a journal after the onset of illness in 1985. Since his memory lasts only a few seconds, writing allowed him to retain some record of the past, although he never explicitly remembers doing it. Most entries are brief, guided by his implicit, or habitual, memory of how to write and instinctual awareness of keeping the journal.

Although Wearing's knowledge of specific facts and recent events is nonexistent, his IQ has stayed close its pre-amnesia levels, as with other amnesia patients. For instance, if you ask Wearing for directions to the kitchen, he wouldn't be able to tell you. But if you ask him to make you a cup of tea, he can walk to the kitchen and do it independently. Because the implicit and semantic memories, which control performance and motor skills, reside in different areas of the brain from episodic memory, intelligence isn't severely affected.

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or surgery that can fully restore the lost memories of someone with persistent amnesia. Since neurotransmitters play a large role in memory creation, researchers are investigating the potential of isolating them for treatments. With amnesia caused by alcoholism (Korsakoff's syndrome), vitamin B1 supplements can help stop brain deterioration. Psychotherapy can also aid people with dissociative amnesia by working through the traumatic event. However, most persistent amnesia cases that deal with disease or injury-related brain damage depend on coping, not cures.

Since the bulk of amnesia cases involve anterograde amnesia, treatment focuses on ways to retain new information and build habits through your implicit memory, as we see with Wearing. In this way, you can think of memories as expiring coupons -- either use them or lose them. By integrating memory tools into everyday life, amnesia patients can recall memories as often as possible to try to strengthen them. Amnesiacs manage to remember to use these memory tools by creating habits, or implicit memories, so they instinctively know to check their calendar in the morning for appointments, for instance.

Pocket calendars or PDAs, such as PalmPilots, BlackBerries and iPhones, can be helpful since people with amnesia can program reminders, store large amounts of information and take it everywhere. Having simple data like this on hand can increase the patient's sense of independence and lighten the burden on caretakers. In addition, establishing patterns of living are integral for amnesia patients to get on with daily life.

Read on to find out how amnesia is medically detected and how it can sometimes be prevented.