Anterograde Amnesia: A Life With No New Memories

Great for an app, terrible for a brain.

Imagine for a second that you are part of a Snapchat: you burst into existence, experience life for a blink of an eye, then all is gone. Nothing more. No thoughts, no presence, no memory. This may sound esoteric or beyond any imagination of human experience, but this is what life is like with anterograde amnesia.

This World Exists

For those who exist in this frame of mind, there is no yesterday, only sudden new todays, as if they have just awakened and have no memory of any previous life. Whatever talents, abilities, and even personalities they had prior to the disorder, remain embedded, even though they have no concept of how or at what point in their lives they learned them (think of the character, Dory, in Finding Nemo).For those with this type of memory loss, there was nothing before the second they wake up. They are living in the now, in its truest form. They may have seen a close friend yesterday, but when the door opens and someone is standing there, it is as if they are greeting a long lost loved one for the first time. “Nothingness”, which we can only imagine, is entrenched in each minute of life. It’s like wiping the slate clean, and as in a new Snapchat, starting out again. This is the world of those with anterograde amnesia, where the brain consistently returns to the beginning.

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This Memory will be Deleted in 10 Seconds:

By definition, anterograde amnesia is the loss of the ability to create new memories, leading to partial or complete inability to recall the recent past, even though long-term memories from before the event which caused the amnesia remain intact. A majority of the individuals who experience anterograde amnesia have had the medical condition occur due to a traumatic physical accident, but there are other conditions that can cause the disorder, including both drug and alcohol abuse, as well as viral infections of the brain. Science continues to study the human brain in an attempt to find out all of its complexities, but in reality, only a few discoveries can be considered conclusive. Researchers believe that the part of the brain known as the medial temporal lobe is one of the main areas for processing and storage. The part of the brain known as the hypothalamus makes a connection with another brain area called the thalamus, and that, in turn, connects with the brain’s cortex, where they believe long-term memories are stored. When there is damage to the hypothalamus and thalamus, and the cortical structures that surround the area, it is thought that the brain simply cannot “encode” the memories of what has happened with the resulting inability to store them, since the connections are disrupted.

Where is your memory hiding
Where is your memory hiding

One of the most famous cases of diagnosed anterograde amnesia occurred in 1957. The patient, Henry Molaison, simply known as “HM”, underwent a brain surgery procedure that involved the removal of the hippocampus, in a bilateral lobectomy. This radical surgery was suggested as a treatment for severe seizures. Molaison’s brain and behavior were studied from the moment of surgery until his death in 2008. Molaison was a man of average intelligence and perception, with a decent vocabulary. But, post-surgery, he did not have the ability to learn new words or remember anything that occurred a few minutes earlier, but he could learn new skills and had memories of his early childhood.

Short term memories
Short term memories

Clive Wearing’s case is more recent and well-documented in both written records and online video. Clive was an accomplished musician, who experienced a cold sore virus in 1985, causing herpes simplex encephalitis, in which the virus attacks the brain. The results of the viral attack ended with Clive developing both retrograde and anterograde amnesia. Retrograde amnesia is the condition where the patient has little memory of what occurred prior to the infection. The combination of the two forms of amnesia has created a situation where Clive “woke up” each day. Clive began to document his awakenings in a journal. However, each time he reviewed the previous entries, he denied that the awakening was real, and he started over. Clive maintained his musical abilities as a pianist and in conducting the choir, and recognized his wife of many years, thinking that each time he saw her, it had been after a long period of time.

Do You Remember Me Now?

Anterograde amnesia is just one type of memory loss disorder. You might be familiar with loss of memory in those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which causes deterioration of brain cells, but there are also a number of other forms. Another, and more common, type of memory loss is post-traumatic amnesia. This is typically due to a head injury, and can have both multiple symptom types and varying degrees of recovery. Sometimes there can be psychological trauma in a person’s life that can catapult him into dissociative amnesia. This can cause a complete memory blackout of various times, situations, and even people. Extreme trauma from just one particular event can result in lacunar amnesia, where all is remembered except that one situation. Each type of memory loss brings with it a roller coaster of emotional and psychological reactions. People who have a combination of disorders are aware of their condition, and live in a constant state of anxiety and despair, eternally reaching and searching for something to cause their memories to return. For those who have no memory except the present, as in anterograde amnesia, there isn’t an ever-present need to find the memories, because, unless someone tells them, they are oblivious to the fact that the memories are gone.

In Memory Of

There is no doubt that anterograde amnesia sufferers have a great effect on family, friends, and caregivers. We take for granted that our loved ones remember the last time we saw each other, the family picnic, and our conversations and experiences. For those who revolve around the anterograde amnesia patient, these situations simply don’t exist. For the patient, each visit, each discussion, is brand new; for family and friends, it is an extensive practice of patience, perseverance, and repetition. It is the awakening of the patient to the same questions, with the constant repetition of the same answers.

Snapshots of Past Lives

No, now I'm perfectly awake
No, now I’m perfectly awake
Waking up brand new every day, without the smallest hint of a memory of anything before, is like the creation of a new Snapchat: a message, an image, or a video that lives for ten seconds, and then is gone. For the anterograde amnesia patient and those around him, this can be both a daunting and frustrating experience. In Clive Wearing’s situation, he attempted to keep a journal to remind himself, but then disregarded it as any form of reality, giving credit only to the new moment. In the movie Before I Go to Sleep, Nicole Kidman records videos so that she can watch and review each day, while Colin Firth, who portrays her husband, posts pictures of their life so that she can review them every day upon awakening. Each of these might be considered a “catchup” guide, because no matter how many times the person with anterograde amnesia reviews or watches, he never remembers having seen the items before. It was as if he leads his life for one day, and after that day, it snaps shut, dissolving into oblivion.

What Has Science Learned?

The inability to make new memories is the harsh reality of anterograde amnesia. The complexities of the human brain still confound a majority of the scientific community, although they are finding small snippets of information with each new study. Certain types of amnesia can be helped with some of the technologies that we use today, such as smartphones for shortcut reminders. There are currently no medications on the market that can assist in rejuvenating the memory area of the brain; however, research is being done that investigates the various neurotransmitters that are involved in the formation of memories.

Living on a patch of short-term memory, isolated from the past.
Living on a patch of short-term memory, isolated from the past.

Anterograde Amnesia: A Small Universe

Just as a Snapchat exists for just a few moments, and then is gone, someone who lives with anterograde amnesia is also reduced to the limitations of a brief existence. One might wonder about the quality of life for the anterograde amnesia patient. He is aware of who he is, he retains long-term memories, but cannot create anything new. Is this a real life situation where ignorance is bliss, like a well-formed Snapchat that is created and sent, and then disappears? In most cases, as long as the patient is not informed about his condition upon awakening, he can live a comfortable life. The goal of those around him is to keep him from causing harm to himself, to avoid agitating him, and to enjoy the time that they have with him. They must remember that the patient has just awakened, and everything that happened before has disappeared into the dark. For him, the universe is in the here and now, as if nothing ever existed before.