What is Retrograde Amnesia?

Margaret Hagen, Vidhi Desai, Christianlly Cena
  • Author
    Margaret Hagen

    Maggie has her BS in Biology from Murray State University and her MS in Cell and Molecular Biology from Saint Louis University. She has many years of tutoring, editing, and writing experience and teaches college-level biology courses.

  • Instructor
    Vidhi Desai

    Vidhi holds a Masters in Education, B.A. in Spanish Literature from Rutgers University. Vidhi has experience working in academic affairs and staff management.

  • Expert Contributor
    Christianlly Cena

    Christianlly has taught college Physics, Natural science, Earth science, and facilitated laboratory courses. He has a master's degree in Physics and is currently pursuing his doctorate degree.

Build your knowledge of retrograde amnesia. Learn the retrograde definition, amnesia symptoms, and the differences between anterograde and retrograde amnesia. Updated: 06/15/2021

What is Retrograde Amnesia?

Retrograde Amnesia: inability to recall memories from before the onset of the amnesia. Patients can form new memories and store them properly, but will not be able to remember experiences from before their amnesia event.

  • Retrograde Definition: going backward or recapitulating
  • Retrograde Memory: memories from the past

There are two types of amnesia that a person may suffer from. Retrograde amnesia is the topic of this lesson, but a patient may also experience anterograde amnesia.

  • Anterograde Amnesia: inability to form new memories after an event
  • Anterograde Definition: going forward in time

Memory

Memory works in three steps:

  • Encoding
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

When an individual encounters new information, the brain creates a series of connections and links to previously learned information to encode that new knowledge. These memories are then stored in short-term memory and, if they are utilized by the brain and deemed important, then they may be moved to long-term memory. When the person needs to recall those details at a later time, the brain can reactivate those pathways to retrieve the stored information.

Brain damage that prevents any part of this three-step process causes the experience of some form of amnesia. In retrograde amnesia, the "storage" and/or retrieval parts of this process have problems. In anterograde amnesia, the encoding and/or "storage" parts of this process are damaged.

Anterograde and Retrograde Amnesia

Anterograde and retrograde amnesia both involve a loss of memory and they can both be caused by brain disease or damage. However, they are different in one very important aspect:

  • Anterograde amnesia affects new information that the individual encounters once they have amnesia, whereas retrograde amnesia affects stored memories from before they had amnesia.

Retrograde amnesia affects memories from before the event, whereas anterograde amnesia affects the formation of memories after it

Timeline showing amnesia types compared to event

Similarities between Retrograde and Anterograde amnesia:

  • Both affect the patient's ability to recall information and experiences
  • Both are associated with brain injuries and illnesses like Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia
  • Both cause difficulties for the patient and their loved ones

Differences between Retrograde and Anterograde amnesia:

  • Anterograde amnesia affects memory storage of experiences after the injury or onset of illness
  • Retrograde amnesia affects the already stored memories from before the injury or onset of illness.

Retrograde and Anterograde amnesia can co-occur, meaning that, especially in the later stages of some diseases or with severe brain injuries, a patient can suffer from both anterograde and retrograde amnesia.

What Is Retrograde Amnesia?

Retrograde amnesia is memory loss of events that occurred in the recent past before the onset of amnesia. Research shows that people who experience retrograde amnesia are more likely to lose memories closer to the occurrence of the amnesia. For example, if John was diagnosed with retrograde amnesia in the year 2013, he is more likely to lose memories from 2012 and 2011 than he is to lose memories from 1980. It is possible that he loses those memories, too, but more likely that he loses memories closer to 2013. Luckily, those with retrograde amnesia can still form new memories.

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  • 0:01 What Is Retrograde Amnesia?
  • 0:41 Symptoms
  • 1:20 Causes
  • 1:50 Diagnosis
  • 2:24 Prevention
  • 2:46 Treatments
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Retrograde Amnesia Symptoms

General Amnesia Symptoms:

  • Confusion during daily life
  • Confabulation, or false memories that have either never happened or are recalled at an inaccurate time
  • Diminished ability to form new memories

Specifically Retrograde Amnesia:

  • Inability to recall facts or information that the patient once knew
  • Inability to recall past experiences
  • Forgetting faces and names of people known by the patient

Memories start to become lost in amnesia patients

Human head with scribbles in brain

Patients with retrograde amnesia typically still remember skills that they previously mastered such as writing with a pen or riding a bike. They also usually do not forget their identities as is often portrayed in movies. It is even possible that they will be able to remember distant memories from their childhood even though they have lost more recent memories.

People with this type of amnesia may still be able to form new memories depending on the cause of their amnesia.

Types of Retrograde Amnesia

Retrograde amnesia can present in various forms; not all cases look the same.

There are three main categories of Retrograde Amnesia: Focal, Temporal, and Dissociative.

Focal Retrograde Amnesia

Focal Retrograde Amnesia can also be called "isolated" or "pure" retrograde amnesia.

  • Patients with this type of retrograde amnesia experience no anterograde effects. They maintain the ability to form new memories.
  • For those with focal retrograde amnesia, there is no impact on intelligence or skill acquisition.

Temporally Graded Retrograde Amnesia

For patients with Temporally Graded, or Temporal Retrograde Amnesia, there is not a thorough erasure of all of their memories. Rather, they are likely to lose more recent memories while retaining older ones. The extent of the memory loss varies depending on the severity of the injury or illness that caused the amnesia.

  • This is a common form of retrograde amnesia. Patients are more likely to forget their most recent memories and to retain more distant memories.

Dissociative Retrograde Amnesia

Dissociative Retrograde Amnesia, also sometimes known as "psychogenic retrograde amnesia," is rare and results from emotional trauma as opposed to physical brain damage.

  • It is typically not permanent. With time and treatment, patients can often restore all lost memories.

Causes of Retrograde Amnesia

There are many ways that the brain can become damaged that can cause amnesia. Memory involves many parts of the brain, so many illnesses and injuries that affect the brain may impact memory.

Retrograde amnesia can be divided into two major categories depending on its cause: neurological amnesia and psychogenic amnesia.

Neurological Amnesia is caused by brain injury or damage. Strokes and dementia are often the most commonly thought of causes for amnesia, but brain damage can be caused by many factors:

  • Stroke (caused by a blood clot in the brain)
  • Loss of oxygen to brain (caused by heart attack, carbon monoxide poisoning, or respiratory distress)
  • Encephalitis (brain inflammation caused by viral infection or autoimmune reactions)
  • Thiamine deficiency (caused by severe malnutrition or alcohol abuse)
  • Brain tumors
  • Brain diseases (like Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia)
  • Seizures (especially in the temporal and frontal lobes)
  • Sedative medications (e.g., benzodiazepines)
  • Head Injuries (mild concussions may cause temporary confusion and memory problems, but severe injuries can cause permanent damage)

Psychogenic Amnesia is caused by psychological trauma. This is the type of amnesia described earlier in the lesson as "dissociative retrograde amnesia".

  • Victims of violent crimes sometimes experience this, not as a result of their physical harm, but of their emotional trauma.
  • Luckily this type of amnesia is usually not permanent, and memories can be recalled with treatment.

Greater brain damage leads to more severe effects. Therefore, diseases like Alzheimer's that increasingly impair the brain will have less noticeable effects in the beginning but become debilitating with time.

Alzheimer

Symptoms

Symptoms of retrograde amnesia are false memories, confusion, or brain and coordination problems. These symptoms are similar to those associated with other types of amnesia. The only specific symptom of retrograde amnesia is forgetting past events as opposed to new ones.

For example, John might not recognize his wife of five years, and he may recall having four children, even if he has none. This can be difficult for loved ones. For example, in the movie, The Notebook, the woman doesn't remember who her husband is. He tells and retells the story of her past, but she seems to forget again and again.

Causes

Causes of retrograde amnesia include brain injuries, surgeries, traumatic events, nutrition issues, infections, or electroconvulsive therapy, commonly known as shock therapy. At times, it can be difficult to track the exact cause of one person's retrograde amnesia. For example, in soap operas, a serious head injury is the usual suspect for amnesia, which can be a cause in reality as well, but it is not the only possibility.

Diagnosis

Doctors will ask many questions in order to determine what the issue is. They'll ask about family history, drug use, including prescription and non-prescription, alcohol use, recent head injuries or surgeries, what the patient can remember or not remember, and any other symptoms.

It's likely that the patient will undergo tests. They can be scans, reflex tests, or simple questions. Questions may include recent news or topics such as the patient's address or name.

Prevention

While retrograde amnesia can occur even with precautions, appropriate measures can help:

  • Safety precautions: Wearing a helmet or seat belt, depending on the vehicle of choice, can prevent serious head injuries.
  • Prompt medical attention: Treatment of any infections or serious head or brain-related injuries can prevent excessive damage.

Treatments

Treatment for retrograde amnesia focuses the following options:

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Video Transcript

What Is Retrograde Amnesia?

Retrograde amnesia is memory loss of events that occurred in the recent past before the onset of amnesia. Research shows that people who experience retrograde amnesia are more likely to lose memories closer to the occurrence of the amnesia. For example, if John was diagnosed with retrograde amnesia in the year 2013, he is more likely to lose memories from 2012 and 2011 than he is to lose memories from 1980. It is possible that he loses those memories, too, but more likely that he loses memories closer to 2013. Luckily, those with retrograde amnesia can still form new memories.

Symptoms

Symptoms of retrograde amnesia are false memories, confusion, or brain and coordination problems. These symptoms are similar to those associated with other types of amnesia. The only specific symptom of retrograde amnesia is forgetting past events as opposed to new ones.

For example, John might not recognize his wife of five years, and he may recall having four children, even if he has none. This can be difficult for loved ones. For example, in the movie, The Notebook, the woman doesn't remember who her husband is. He tells and retells the story of her past, but she seems to forget again and again.

Causes

Causes of retrograde amnesia include brain injuries, surgeries, traumatic events, nutrition issues, infections, or electroconvulsive therapy, commonly known as shock therapy. At times, it can be difficult to track the exact cause of one person's retrograde amnesia. For example, in soap operas, a serious head injury is the usual suspect for amnesia, which can be a cause in reality as well, but it is not the only possibility.

Diagnosis

Doctors will ask many questions in order to determine what the issue is. They'll ask about family history, drug use, including prescription and non-prescription, alcohol use, recent head injuries or surgeries, what the patient can remember or not remember, and any other symptoms.

It's likely that the patient will undergo tests. They can be scans, reflex tests, or simple questions. Questions may include recent news or topics such as the patient's address or name.

Prevention

While retrograde amnesia can occur even with precautions, appropriate measures can help:

  • Safety precautions: Wearing a helmet or seat belt, depending on the vehicle of choice, can prevent serious head injuries.
  • Prompt medical attention: Treatment of any infections or serious head or brain-related injuries can prevent excessive damage.

Treatments

Treatment for retrograde amnesia focuses the following options:

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  • Activities
  • FAQs

Retrograde Amnesia: A Case Study

In this activity, you'll be asked to analyze two scenarios and provide a written response to the questions that follow.

Case 1

Finn, a 30-year-old man, drove his car while under the influence of alcohol. He suffered a car accident and was brought immediately into a nearby medical facility. Unluckily, the event caused him a severe head injury, which required surgery. It took him four weeks to recover from the surgery. He is confused and has difficulty recalling recent memories before the accident. He had no other outstanding medical history, apart from a history of chronic alcoholism.

Case 2

Tina, an 18-year-old high school graduate, had a mild head trauma which she sustained from a motorcycle accident. She had no helmet on when the accident occurred. Upon questioning, she could recall a vivid memory about the accident but has lost the knowledge of who people are. One time, some of her high school classmates visited her at the hospital, and she could not even remember a single one of them. She was still able to form new memories after the traumatic accident. Tina had no other outstanding medical history, apart from recurring asthma attacks.

Questions

  • What are the most striking clinical findings for each patient?
  • Do Finn and Tina experience amnesia? Why do you say so?
  • Identify the specific type of amnesia for both patients, including the underlying cause. (if applicable).
  • What possible treatment should be administered to each patient?

Sample Answers

  • Finn has alcoholism and had difficulty recalling recent memories before the accident. Tina, on the other hand, has recurring amnesia and an inability to recall people.
  • Finn and Tina both have amnesia. It is a medical condition that is associated with memory loss, which is either long-term or short-term.
  • They have retrograde amnesia; they only have the difficulty recalling recently formed memories before the accident. In Finn's case, it was either due to alcoholism or the surgery. For Tina, it was the mild head trauma that she sustained.
  • Tina should be given medication and supplements to improve symptoms. Finn should be given the same kind of treatment as Tina and discontinue the consumption of alcohol.

Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site is for your information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

What do you forget when you have amnesia?

Patients with retrograde amnesia may forget past experiences, facts, faces, names, etc. They typically do not forget who they are, and often retain skills that they had before their illness onset.

What is the meaning of retrograde?

Retrograde means going backwards, or going over something again. In retrograde amnesia patients, they are no longer able to go back over previous memories from before the onset of their symptoms.

What is the difference between retrograde and anterograde amnesia?

Retrograde amnesia prevents patients from being able to recall memories from before their injury or the onset of their illness. Anterograde amnesia disrupts the ability to form and store new memories after the patient's illness or injury.

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