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Anterograde Amnesia: Definition, Treatment & Causes

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  • 0:01 Definition of…
  • 1:06 Memory Divisions
  • 2:31 The Biology of Memory
  • 3:40 Traumatic Brain Injury
  • 5:28 Treatment of Amnesia
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Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

One of the interesting brain-to-mind interactions is when a person can no longer make new memories. Why does this happen? Are there ways this can happen other than pushing metal through your brain? Is there a way fix it?

Definition of Anterograde Amnesia

A man is in a terrible motorcycle accident that caused his wife to die and him to have severe brain damage. When he wakes up, he immediately asks where his wife is and they inform him she has passed away. He becomes so upset he has to be sedated. When he wakes up from the sedation, he immediately asks where his wife is and they inform him she has passed away. He becomes so upset he has to be sedated. Again and again, this happens until they realize he has a form of amnesia.

Anterograde amnesia is when a person can no longer form new long-term episodic memories. An episodic memory is an autobiographical event that you can recall from memory. Think of it like an episode you could watch from a television show. Your fifth birthday party, the time that guy screamed like a girl, and the time you slammed your hand in the door.

This type of amnesia can be moderate to severe. A person may have difficulty forming new memories, or they may not be able to at all. We will look into why a little further below.

Memory Divisions

You may hear that anterograde amnesia is when a person can no longer make new memories. This is not entirely true. You possess many different types of memories, which we will briefly cover.

Your long-term memory, often abbreviated as LTM, is everything you can remember that did not happen today. This ranges from stuff that happened when you were three to stuff that happened yesterday. Your short-term memory, or STM, includes things that happened today. The change from STM to LTM happens while you sleep.

Long-term memory is often divided into three categories by psychologists. They are:

  • Procedural - these are procedures to things, like how to tie your shoes, how to set up a chessboard, and the path you walk to get home. This is stuff you know how to do.
  • Semantic - these memories are your knowledge of the world, including facts, definitions, and implicit understandings. These are things like the capital of Bangladesh is Dhaka (fact), couches are for sitting (definition), and the Queen of England is fancy (implicit understanding).
  • Episodic - the autobiographical memories we already discussed

Anterograde amnesia only impairs your formation of new episodic memories. You might be saying, 'What? Why only that one and not the others? A memory is a memory!' - which leads us to the reason why.

The Biology of Memory

Your brain is extremely complicated, but we will tease out a few pieces. In the very center of your brain is a little piece that is called the hippocampus. This is the area that deals with converting short-term memories to long-term memories. Your brain is sort of a mirror image of itself, meaning you have part of your hippocampus on one side and part on the other side. Damage to only one side would mean your amnesia is not as bad.

Your procedural memories are created and stored in a different place. This other brain chunk is called the cerebellum and looks like a chunk of cauliflower. Here is where your procedural memories are created and stored. A more common way to refer to procedural memories is muscle memory.

If you know how to ride a bike, swing a bat, drive stick shift, or cut up an onion really quickly, your cerebellum is actually doing the work. This is why you don't have to think about it when you are doing it; your body just rides a bike, swings a bat, drives a stick, or cuts an onion without you having to think about it. Just as a side note, the cerebellum is not the cerebrum. These are two very different structures.

Semantic memory has not been precisely determined, with a possibility of being near the hippocampus but also in the outer layer of the brain called the cortex.

Traumatic Brain Injury

Anterograde amnesia most often occurs when there is damage to the hippocampus. This usually happens with a traumatic brain injury, in which the brain inside its skull casing is shaken up really hard. Other ways include puncturing it with foreign objects, such as shrapnel that enters the brain casing, by an infection, by alcohol or other toxins, by stress, or surgery.

Alcohol and stress both appear to have a nasty effect on the hippocampus. Both won't give you the same cataclysmic effect as having a piece of metal pass through your brain. But if you speak to someone who has been an alcoholic for 20 years, or was known for being an angry or stressed person, you may notice their memories are not as good as they get older. The decline of memory with age becomes more pronounced.

A famous patient in psychology had an unusual brain surgery. He goes by the code H.M. and had a bilateral temporal ablation. He had both sides (bilateral) of his brain right around his temple (temporal) removed with what is effectively a surgical belt sander (ablation). This was done to stop a severe form of epilepsy.

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