To diagnose amnesia, a doctor will do a comprehensive evaluation to rule out other possible causes of memory loss, such as Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, depression or brain tumor.
The evaluation starts with a detailed medical history. Because the person with memory loss may not be able to provide thorough information, a family member, friend or another caregiver generally takes part in the interview as well.
The doctor will ask many questions to understand the memory loss. Issues that might be addressed include:
- Type of memory loss — recent or long term
- When the memory problems started and how they progressed
- Triggering factors, such as head injury, stroke or surgery
- Family history, especially of neurological disease
- Drug and alcohol use
- Other signs and symptoms, such as confusion, language problems, personality changes or impaired ability to care for self
- History of seizures, headaches, depression or cancer
The physical examination may include a neurological exam to check reflexes, sensory function, balance, and other physiological aspects of the brain and nervous system.
The doctor will test the person’s thinking, judgment, and recent and long-term memory. He or she will check the person’s knowledge of general information — such as the name of the current president — as well as personal information and past events.
The memory evaluation can help determine the extent of memory loss and provide insights about what kind of help the person may need.
Imaging tests — including MRI and CT scan — may be ordered to look for damage or abnormalities in the brain. Blood tests can check for infection, nutritional deficiencies or other issues. An electroencephalogram may be ordered to look for the presence of seizure activity.
Treatment for amnesia focuses on techniques and strategies to help make up for the memory problem.
A person with amnesia may work with an occupational therapist to learn new information to replace what was lost, or to use intact memories as a basis for taking in new information.
Memory training may also include a variety of strategies for organizing information so that it’s easier to remember and for improving understanding of extended conversation.
Many people with amnesia find it helpful to use smart technology, such as a smartphone or a hand-held tablet device. With some training and practice, even people with severe amnesia can use these electronic organizers to help with day-to-day tasks. For example, smartphones can be programmed to remind them about important events or to take medications.
Low-tech memory aids include notebooks, wall calendars, pill minders, and photographs of people and places.
Medications or supplements
No medications are currently available for treating most types of amnesia.
Amnesia caused by Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome involves a lack of thiamin. Treatment includes replacing this vitamin and providing proper nutrition. Although treatment, which also needs to include alcohol abstinence, can help prevent further damage, most people won’t recover all of their lost memory.
Researchers are investigating several neurotransmitters involved in memory formation, which may one day lead to new treatments for memory disorders. But the complexity of the brain processes involved makes it unlikely that a single medication will be able to resolve memory problems.