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Causes of Memory Loss

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Our memories are never static but always evolving. The ability to recall memories is important for daily functioning, for maintaining relationship and even important to our sense of self-confidence. Therefore, memory less can be both alarming and depressing. How are memories lost? What causes memory loss? Read on to find out.

What is Memory Loss?

Memory loss describes the clinical condition known as amnesia. It may involve total or partial loss of memory.

There is no single part of the brain solely tasked with keeping memory although its storage is restricted to particular areas of the brain. More specifically, memories are stored in different parts of the limbic system of the brain. Therefore, any factor that negatively affects this area of the brain can result in amnesia.

Different cases of memory loss have been caused by damage to the hippocampus, amygdala and other parts of the medial temporal lobes.

Types of Memory Loss

There are two main types of memory loss: anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia.

Anterograde amnesia involves long-term memory loss. This means that sufferers are unable to easily consolidate events in their memories. It involves an impairment of the mechanisms responsible for memory formation, therefore, new memories are not formed.

Anterograde amnesia is caused by failure to transfer information from short-term memory to permanent long-term memory. As a result, sufferers are unable to remember events that occurred a little while before recollection.

Retrograde amnesia, on the other hand, involves the loss of memories of past events.

In the classic case of retrograde amnesia, the sufferer cannot remember events prior to the event that causes the amnesia. This means that while he can form new memories, the sufferer cannot remember events from the past.

However, the degree of memory loss varies and depends on the severity of the causative agents. Some people only experience partial loss of past memories, and usually the most recent memories are the first ones to go.

While sufferers of retrograde amnesia may forget past events, they usually do not lose past abilities and knowledge of learned facts.

There are other types of memory loss which have specific causes. Some of these are:

  • Childhood amnesia – loss of childhood memories
  • Lacunar amnesia – loss of the memory of a particular event
  • Dissociative amnesia – loss of memory caused by psychological trauma instead of physical injury
  • Source amnesia – loss of memory of the source of a memory
  • Prosopamnesia – impairment in the ability to remember faces

Effects of Memory Loss

Memory loss can be permanent or transient. Even if and when sufferers regain some or all of their memories and memorization abilities, they may suffer from the psychological after effects of the condition.

These after effects usually involve loss of confidence in the sufferer’s ability to accurately remember the events.

Another recently discovered after effect of memory loss is an impairment of imagination. When such cases occur, sufferers not only cannot properly recollect past events but also cannot coherently imagine future events.

Because this form of impairment involves the hippocampus, it is believed that that part of the brain governs the ability to use past memories to imagine the future.

Causes of Memory Loss

Memory loss can be caused by a wide variety of factors.

Some of these causes trigger transient or temporary memory loss while others will cause permanent amnesia. In addition, amnesia may involve the loss of a specific memory or cover an entire period of the sufferer’s life.

Discussed below are the major causes of memory loss

Head Injury

Physical trauma affecting the head due to a fall or automobile accident is a common cause of memory loss. Head injury can cause both or either retrograde and/or anterograde amnesia.

Head injury usually involves brain injury, and the resultant memory loss can be permanent or temporary.


Some drugs can also cause memory loss. Such drugs include both prescription and over-the-counter medication.

Drugs which cause memory loss as a side effect include those that act on the central nervous system. They usually affect multiple neurotransmitter pathways. This effect is mostly experienced in the elderly who metabolize drugs slower and to lesser extents than young people.

The major types of medications that may cause memory loss include sedatives, antidepressants, tranquilizers, antihistamines, muscle relaxants, painkillers, anxiolytics, antihypertensive drugs and arthritis medications.

It may be possible to reverse memory loss caused by medications if the effect is caught early on and the causative medications withdrawn.

Alcohol and Drug Use

Excessive and prolong alcohol consumption can also cause memory loss especially through dementia.

Alcohol affects the brain just like the drugs discussed above. It has an overall depressant effect on the central nervous system and its toxic metabolites can damage neurons and sections of the brain.

Besides alcohol abuse, drugs abuse is another related cause of memory loss.

Most of the street drugs that are abused are psychoactive opioids that produce their euphoric high and depressive lows by acting on the brain. Therefore, prolong use of such drugs can modify brain function and also cause brain damage.

Illicit drugs especially cause chemical changes in the brain. When such changes occur in the parts of the brain responsible for consolidating and extracting memories, the brain may lose its ability to accurately recollect past events or form new memories.

Smoking is another related cause of memory loss. The mechanism by which smoking causes amnesia is by reducing oxygen supply to the brain. Over time, as the blood is filled with toxic carbon dioxide and other toxins which displace oxygen, the brain is starved of oxygen, and then starts dying.

A lot of studies have identified oxygen deprivation to especially affect the parts of the brain responsible for memory.

Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is another leading cause of memory loss. While we sleep, the brain takes the time to consolidate memory by moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

This process is especially important for matching information to context in the brain, and some experts believe dreams are manifestations of the brain properly filing away memories in the sub-conscious.

However, when we sleep for fewer hours than we need either because of insomnia or other sleep disorders involving frequently waking up in the night, the body and brain are fatigued from lack of adequate rest.

Therefore, sleep deprivation interferes with the process of storing information in the memory seats of the brain and the resultant fatigue makes it difficult to retrieve stored memories.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Proteins and healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids are brain foods. They help the brain build new connections and protect established ones.

Proteins and fats also make up the building block of the neurons in the central nervous system as well as the tissues making up different parts. Therefore, these classes of food are essential to help maintain the integrity of the brain.

However, there are even more important micronutrients that affect the memory seats of the brain.

Deficiencies in vitamins B1 and B12 are especially known to result in memory loss.

Vitamin B12 deficiency, for example, can cause permanent brain damage. This B vitamin is needed by neurons and serves as cofactors to various enzymatic syntheses of brain chemicals.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can also be caused by smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Therefore, this nutritional deficiency contributes considerably to the memory loss experienced by smokers and regular drinkers.

Stress, Depression and other Anxiety Disorders

Stress, depression and anxiety can all affect concentration and lower mental focus.

All of these conditions can be caused by emotional trauma, recent losses and major life changes. They cause significant changes in the kind and type of neurotransmitters and hormones flooding the brain.

Therefore, until they are properly managed, stress, anxiety and depression may interfere with the ability to concentrate, to organize information and to retrieve memories.


Memory loss is an important aspect of dementia which also involves losing the ability to perform daily activities. It is a progressive disease that worsens as more brain cells die out.

Dementia can be caused by aging, disease and drug abuse. It is usually the leading cause of memory loss in the elderly as their cognitive functioning declines.

Thyroid Problems

The hormones released from the thyroid gland determine the rate of metabolism in the body, and by extension the energy available for daily activity.

Both an underactive and an overactive thyroid gland can cause memory loss.

When overactive, the excessive thyroid hormones released make metabolism too fast such that it may cause confusion, hyperactivity and difficulty maintain mental focus. On the other hand, an underactive thyroid slows down metabolism so much that it can cause fatigue, depression and inability to consolidate and retrieve memories.

Memory loss caused by thyroid problems can be quickly resolved by treating the thyroid dysfunction.


Dehydration is another leading cause of memory loss in the elderly.

Dehydration, especially when severe, can cause wide changes in glucose levels and blood volume. These changes can be severe enough to cause confusion, memory loss and other dementia-like side effects.

Drugs that may cause dehydration include diuretics and laxatives.

Electroconvulsive Therapy

Electroconvulsive therapy involves the electrical stimulation of parts of the brain through electrodes. It is used to induce convulsion in order to “cure” certain psychiatric and psychological disorders.

However, a commonly reported side effect of this therapy is memory loss. In fact, electroconvulsive therapy can cause both anterograde and retrograde amnesia.

Since the brain is a rather complex living electric circuit, electroconvulsive therapy short-circuits it and cause significant changes in neurochemical transmission which may affect the outcomes of certain disorders.

However, there is no way to accurately predict the effect of electroconvulsive therapy and the sudden jolt of electricity may cause varying degrees of memory loss.

Neurodegenerative Diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases cause the progress loss of nerve cells. This means that such diseases cause brain damage. When such damage reaches the parts of the brain responsible for holding memories, they may also cause amnesia.

Examples of neurodegenerative diseases that can cause memory loss are Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.


Certain surgical procedures may also cause amnesia.

Brain surgery especially the ones used to treat seizures usually involve removing parts of the brain. The hippocampus and amygdala are two such parts removed to “cure” severe epilepsy that does not respond to other treatments.

Unfortunately, these parts of the brain also falls under the limbic system which controls memory. Therefore, such brain surgery can cause memory loss especially anterograde amnesia.

Memory loss has also been reported for surgeries on other parts of the bod especially the heart. For example, amnesia is a known side effect of heart bypass surgery. Such memory loss is most likely caused by restricted flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain during the surgery.

Encephalitis and Brain Infections

Encephalitis refers to the inflammation of the brain. Such inflammation may be caused by infections, drugs or an autoimmune disease.

When the brain is inflamed, its spatial arrangement is changed because it is structurally different from a normal brain. This means that the normal neuronal transmissions are affected, pathways are blocked and entire sections of the brain lose their functions due to the overbearing weight of the inflammation.

Encephalitis ends up affecting the limbic system and causing memory loss.

Other infections that affect the brain can also cause memory loss. The most important examples of such infections are syphilis, tuberculosis and HIV.

Stroke and Limited Oxygen Supply to the Brain

Stroke involves the interruption of blood flow to the brain either due to the blockage or leakage of blood vessels.

Since blood carries the nutrient and oxygen constantly needed by the brain, this interruption can lead to brain damage. When the limbic system is affected, it results in memory loss.

Stroke can cause varying kinds of amnesia. The most common presentation is that people who just suffered from stroke often have vivid memories of the distant past but cannot recollect events that happen a few hours ago.

Other causes of limited oxygen supply to the brain include anesthesia complications, stopped heart of indeed any event that temporarily stops breathing.

Usually, the length and extent of restricted oxygen supply to the brain determines the extent of brain damage and, therefore, memory loss. Since the brain cannot survive for any extended period without oxygen, brain damage proceeds rather quickly when oxygen supply is cut off. On the other hand, prolong low supply of oxygen may silently cause brain damage and lead to a progressive loss of memory.





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