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What is anterograde amnesia?
Anterograde amnesia is a type of memory loss that occurs when you can’t form new memories. In the most extreme cases, this means you permanently lose the ability to learn or retain any new information. On its own, this type of memory loss is rare.
Anterograde amnesia is often temporary. This condition usually only lasts hours, and your memory frequently returns to normal afterward.
What is the difference between anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia?
In essence, anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia are two sides of the same coin.
- Anterograde: This kind of memory loss means you can’t form new memories. This word partly comes from the Latin word “ante,” which means before. In this context, a person can’t store memories moving forward.
- Retrograde: This kind of memory loss means you lose memories from your past. The word partly comes from the Latin word “retro,” which means backward. In this context, a person loses already-stored memories, so they experience memory loss looking backward.
While these two types of memory loss can happen on their own, it’s also very common for them to happen at the same time. An example of this is if a person has dementia, which can cause problems recalling past memories and an inability to form new ones.
Who does it affect?
Anterograde amnesia can affect people at any age but most commonly happens with conditions or circumstances that cause brain damage.
How common is anterograde amnesia?
Anterograde amnesia that happens on its own is a very rare condition. It’s much more common for it to happen alongside retrograde amnesia and other conditions that affect your brain. However, experts don’t know exactly how common it is because there isn’t much available data on it.
How does this condition affect my body?
To understand how anterograde amnesia affects your brain, it helps to know more about the way memory works. Your brain has different ways of storing information. Some of those ways are time-dependent. The type of information can also determine how your brain stores information and memories*.
A key part of how memory works is the difference between explicit and implicit memory.
Explicit memories are things you can recall on purpose. You can remember them in one of two ways:
- Semantic memory: This is just the facts of something you remember. An example is remembering that you went for a walk in the park last weekend.
- Episodic memory: This kind of memory involves the details of what you remember from an event. An example of this would be remembering what the weather was like, if you spoke with someone you knew, if you saw a specific kind of bird or flower, etc.
Implicit memories are things you know, but you don't need to remember how you learned them. Examples of implicit memory include remembering how to tie your shoes, ride a bike, swim or drive a car.
Your brain stories implicit memories in a very different way from explicit memories. Because of this, some people can still learn new things by forming implicit memories. That usually happens from repetition and specific types of learning processes.
*See the How does memory work? section of our Amnesia article to learn more.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of anterograde amnesia?
People with anterograde amnesia can’t form new memories. That means you forget something that just happened within a short period. For some, their memory may last a few minutes or so. Others might forget about something only seconds after it happens.
Some of the most likely symptoms include:
- Forgetting about conversations or events shortly after they happen, which can cause people to repeat questions or say the same thing many times.
- Forgetting the names and faces of people they met.
- Confusion or disorientation about the time, date, current events, etc.
- Problems with related abilities, including the ability to speak, write, read, etc.
Other symptoms are possible, but these usually depend on what’s causing you to have anterograde amnesia.
What causes anterograde amnesia?
Anterograde amnesia can happen for many reasons. The following is a list of some of the most common conditions (with more information for some below).
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Brain aneurysms.
- Brain tumors (including cancerous and noncancerous growths).
- Cerebral hypoxia (brain damage from lack of oxygen).
- Frontotemporal dementia.
- Epilepsy and seizures.
- Drugs and medications (especially certain sedatives and anesthetics; see “anesthesia” below).
- Head injuries such as concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
- Infections (such as those that cause encephalitis, such as from the herpes simplex virus).
- Mental health conditions or concerns (see “dissociative amnesia” below).
- Toxins, such as carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Transient global amnesia.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other degenerative brain diseases
Degenerative brain conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia are the most common causes of anterograde amnesia. Memory loss is extremely common with these conditions because they happen when areas of your brain deteriorate and stop working. People with these conditions have trouble recalling past memories and forming new ones. Memory problems are usually an early sign of these conditions and worsen as these diseases progress and cause more areas of their brain to die off.
Some medications can cause amnesia for a short period. A common use of these medications is for sedation and anesthesia, such as before a medical procedure or surgery. Anesthesia not only puts you into a deep sleep, but also causes amnesia by blocking your brain’s conversion of anything you experience into memory, which is unlikely but still possible even though you’re asleep.
Psychogenic and dissociative amnesia
In rare cases, people can develop amnesia because of a problem with their mind — which is the combination of memories, experiences, thoughts and emotions that make you who you are — rather than the brain itself. The name for this is psychogenic amnesia. It happens because your mind blocks memory formation rather than a medical condition or distinct problem in your brain. It's rare, and experts don't fully understand how and why it happens.
Dissociative amnesia is when you lose memories because your mind dissociates as a defense against extreme mental stress or trauma. In severe cases, people may dissociate so much — especially during a traumatic event, anxiety or panic attacks, or flashbacks — that they don’t form memories while the dissociation happens.
Transient global amnesia
This is a short-term form of amnesia that usually affects people between ages 50 and 70 for unknown reasons. Part of what makes it unusual is that the amnesia it causes is temporary. People with this condition will seem disoriented and can’t form new memories. Fortunately, the condition is short-lived and usually goes away within a few hours. In very rare cases, it can last up to 24 hours.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a condition that happens because of a severe vitamin deficiency. This is usually due to damage to the brain when a person isn’t getting or isn’t absorbing enough vitamin B1 (also known as thiamine/thiamin). This condition is also common with other medical conditions like alcohol misuse disorders and eating disorders, and conditions that make it hard for a person to absorb vitamins from food.
Is anterograde amnesia contagious?
Anterograde amnesia isn’t contagious. However, some infectious conditions — especially certain viruses — can cause encephalitis, an inflammation of your brain. That can lead to anterograde amnesia. But having these kinds of infections isn’t a guarantee that you’ll develop anterograde (or any other form of) amnesia.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is anterograde amnesia diagnosed?
Diagnosing anterograde amnesia usually takes a combination of healthcare providers from different specialties, including:
- Neurology. This is the study of your brain. A neurologist can help identify any changes in — or damage to — parts of your brain. A key part of diagnosing anterograde amnesia is a neurological exam, which looks for signs of other problems in your brain based on whether or not you have trouble with certain tasks or actions.
- Psychiatry. This specialty focuses on your mental health. Healthcare providers can help with certain kinds of tests, especially those that focus on memory and those that determine if you have any mental health concerns that could be causing or contributing to the memory loss.
- Radiology. This specialty focuses on interpreting and looking for visible signs of a problem on imaging tests. This team can work cooperatively with other specialists to identify subtle or small signs of a problem that might show up on an imaging scan.
What tests will be done to diagnose this condition?
The most likely tests for anterograde amnesia include lab tests and imaging scans. Some examples include:
- Memory and cognitive tests. These are tests that look for problems with a person’s ability to remember things and their ability to think, concentrate and solve problems.
- Blood tests. These look for signs of infections, issues with blood oxygen levels or with liver, kidney and thyroid function. They can also look for signs of vitamin B1 deficiency or other problems preventing a person from properly absorbing vitamin B1.
- Computerized tomography (CT) scans. These tests use X-rays and computer processing to generate a 3D view of your brain. They’re very common in cases where a person has a head injury that could cause a skull fracture, bleeding in their brain or other conditions.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. This test uses an extremely powerful magnet, radio waves and computer processing to generate an extraordinarily detailed, 3D image of your brain. It’s especially helpful in showing if a person has damage to specific parts of their brain.
- Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). Surrounding the brain and spinal cord is a thin layer of cerebrospinal fluid. Though less common, testing cerebrospinal fluid can sometimes help your healthcare provider rule out other conditions.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scan. This type of imaging scan can see how active the cells are in certain areas of your body. It can help show areas of damaged or destroyed brain tissue because those areas are less active or not active at all.
Management and Treatment
How is anterograde amnesia treated, and is there a cure?
Anterograde isn’t directly curable or treatable, but it’s sometimes possible to treat the underlying conditions that cause it. The treatments vary widely depending on the underlying condition. Some conditions go away on their own.
What treatments are used?
If you or a loved one have anterograde amnesia in any form, your healthcare provider is the best person to explain the possible treatments that might help. That's because they can offer treatments that consider your medical history, circumstances, preferences and more.
While it’s not possible to treat anterograde amnesia directly, there are types of therapy that might help. These therapy techniques work in certain ways.
Retraining your brain
While anterograde amnesia affects explicit memory, it usually doesn’t affect implicit memory. That means you can still learn by using methods that involve implicit memory. Examples include:
- Errorless learning. Instead of learning from mistakes (because someone with amnesia can’t learn this way), this method focuses on giving hints and prompts. This works because hints and prompts help your brain rebuild and strengthen the connections and networks that you rely on for memory.
- Procedural learning. This method focuses heavily on repetition and practice.
- Priming. This technique involves giving a cue to help someone learn. The cues train the person’s brain on how to act next. Over time, this effect gets stronger, so you can rely on cues less.
The other key way to help people with amnesia is to show them how to compensate for their memory problems. Ways they can do this include:
- Journaling or keeping a diary.
- Using planners, agendas and calendars.
- Making labels and notes.
- Downloading apps and programming devices that can remind them to do certain repeated activities (taking medication daily, paying bills monthly, etc.).
How can I take care of myself or manage the symptoms of anterograde amnesia?
Anterograde amnesia isn’t a condition that you can diagnose without the help of a trained, qualified healthcare provider. As people with this condition have trouble forming new memories, they often can’t recognize that they have this condition. Because of this, loved ones are often the first to notice when a person has memory problems.
Many of the conditions that cause anterograde amnesia develop slowly. Sudden memory loss is a possible warning sign of severe or life-threatening brain conditions like stroke or aneurysm. If you notice a loved one has sudden memory loss, call 911 (or your local emergency services number) immediately.
How can I reduce my risk?
Because anterograde amnesia happens unpredictably, there’s no way to prevent it. However, you can reduce the risk of it happening by avoiding conditions or circumstances that could cause it. Some ways to reduce your risk include:
- Eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. Many conditions related to your circulatory system and heart health, especially stroke, can damage areas of your brain, causing anterograde amnesia (and other problems). Preventing stroke and similar conditions is a key way to reduce your risk of developing amnesia.
- Don’t ignore infections. Eye and ear infections need fast treatment. If these infections spread to your brain, they can become serious or even deadly, and they can cause brain damage leading to amnesia.
- Wear safety equipment. Head injuries can result in brain damage that causes amnesia. Whether you’re on the job or on your own time, using safety equipment can help you avoid an injury that causes this kind of damage.
- Manage your health conditions. It’s essential to manage conditions that can lead to brain damage, such as epilepsy. Managing those conditions can help you avoid or limit permanent damage, preventing or reducing the severity of a brain injury that causes amnesia.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have anterograde amnesia?
People who have anterograde amnesia have issues forming new memories. Depending on how severe the condition is, they could have limited ability to form new memories or no ability to form memories at all. That can cause difficulties with relationships, holding a job and more.
How long does anterograde amnesia last?
Anterograde amnesia can be temporary, long-term or permanent, depending on why it happens. The condition is more likely to be long-term or permanent when the damage to memory-related areas of your brain is severe.
What’s the outlook for this condition?
The outlook for anterograde amnesia mostly depends on the underlying cause. The outlook is usually good when it has a temporary cause, and the damage isn’t permanent. Transient global amnesia, for example, has a very good outlook, and most people regain their memory abilities within 24 hours.
When anterograde amnesia happens because of damage to your brain, the outlook usually isn’t as good. If the damage to those areas of your brain is severe — especially on both sides of your brain — anterograde amnesia is usually permanent. Some people regain limited memory abilities, but this varies from person to person. Your healthcare provider is the best person to explain the outlook for your case.
How do I take care of myself?
Taking care of yourself when you have anterograde amnesia is difficult because you can’t form new memories. If you do have this condition, your healthcare provider is the best source of information on how to care for yourself. They can recommend treatment options, therapy programs, strategies to compensate for your condition and more.
When should I see my healthcare provider, or when should I seek care?
You should see your healthcare provider as recommended. You should also see them if you notice changes in your symptoms or new symptoms, especially changes that disrupt your usual routine or activities.
When should I go to ER?
You should go to an emergency room if you notice a sudden change in your symptoms, especially symptoms that can happen with a stroke, including:
- Weakness, numbness or paralysis on one side of your body.
- Slurred or garbled speech.
- Drooping on one side of your face or vision loss in one eye.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Confusion, irritability or agitation.
- Trouble focusing, thinking or remembering.
- Sudden headache that’s severe or keeps you from going about your usual activities.
A quick, easy way to remember stroke symptoms is using the acronym FAST:
- Face. Stroke often causes a droop on one side of the face.
- Arms. If a person tries to raise their arms, are the muscles in one arm weaker than the other?
- Speech. Is a person’s speech garbled or hard to understand?
- Time. Stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency. However, the less time it takes to receive treatment, the more likely a person will have a good outcome.
What can I do if I notice a loved one showing signs of memory loss?
Memory problems are a common issue as people get older, especially with certain brain conditions. It’s often difficult to know when memory problems are normal and when they’re a sign of another problem.
If you are the loved one of someone who shows signs of memory loss, it's important to talk to them about this sooner rather than later. You should also encourage them to talk to their healthcare provider to learn if it’s a normal issue or a reason for concern.
If you notice you’re having trouble remembering things, you may also want to consider talking to your loved ones about what you want if you can no longer make decisions for yourself.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Anterograde amnesia is an uncommon problem on its own, but happens commonly with some conditions. It’s especially common with age-related degenerative brain diseases, conditions that cause brain damage and concussions or traumatic brain injuries. It can be frightening to experience memory loss firsthand, and it can be difficult to see this happen to a loved one. If you notice any signs or symptoms of memory loss, it’s important to see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. They can determine if you have a reason for concern and, if you do, how to treat or care for it. They can also offer support and resources to help you and your loved ones as you try to live with and adapt to the changes you’re facing.
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