Retrograde amnesia can affect your ability to recall past memories. Depending on the cause of your amnesia, treatment options, like psychotherapy and medication, are available to help you.

Amnesia is a severe form of memory loss that affects the way your brain creates, stores, and recalls memories. It’s commonly caused by damage to the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory formation, storage, and retrieval.

Several different types of amnesia exist – with the two main types being anterograde amnesia and retrograde amnesia. Anterograde amnesia affects the way you form new memories, while retrograde amnesia affects your ability to recall past memories.

Retrograde amnesia is a type of amnesia that happens after a “causative event” that damages the brain, such as a brain injury or other illness. It directly affects retrograde memory, which is the memory that we have of experiences that happened before a specific point in time.

Retrograde amnesia causes a partial or complete loss of memories related to events or experiences that happened prior to the amnesia.

When someone develops retrograde amnesia, they may have little to no memory of what happened in the months or years leading up to the amnesia. But they’re still likely to retain memories from their childhood or early life.

What is anterograde vs. retrograde amnesia?

Retrograde amnesia refers to the form of amnesia that causes a loss of past memories in relation to a specific event. Anterograde amnesia refers to the form of amnesia that makes a person unable to form new memories after a specific event.

Anterograde and retrograde amnesia aren’t mutually exclusive – and people can experience both at the same time. For example, someone who has had a stroke may have trouble remembering events from their past, while also struggling to retain new information or make new memories.

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Retrograde amnesia simply refers to the form of amnesia that affects past memories, but there are several different types of this amnesia.

Temporally graded retrograde amnesia

Temporally graded retrograde amnesia refers to the type of amnesia in which memory loss is graded – or in other words, varies in intensity.

With this type of amnesia, a person experiences significant memory loss for more recent memories, while more distant memories remain largely unaffected. This concept is known as Ribot’s law, named after the French psychologist Theodule-Armand Ribot.

One of the most common examples of this type of amnesia is in the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Many people living with this condition may have trouble remembering what happened the previous day or week but can recall vivid memories from childhood.

Focal retrograde amnesia

Focal retrograde amnesia, also known as isolated or pure retrograde amnesia, refers to the type of retrograde amnesia that happens without any symptoms of anterograde amnesia.

A person with this condition may not be able to remember past memories, but their ability to form new memories remains intact. Experts often consider this type of amnesia to be “pure” retrograde amnesia because it doesn’t involve any other type of amnesia.

Other types of retrograde amnesia

Retrograde amnesia can occur as part of several other types of amnesia, including:

  • Transient global amnesia: this is a temporary form of amnesia that can cause symptoms of both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. This form of amnesia typically develops suddenly and only lasts for about 24 hours.
  • Post-traumatic amnesia: refers to either anterograde or retrograde amnesia that happens after a traumatic brain injury. This amnesia happens after a period of unconsciousness, such as awakening from a concussion or coma.
  • Dissociative amnesia: this is a type of retrograde amnesia that a person may experience after a stressful or traumatic event. This type of amnesia usually involves the memories surrounding the traumatic event, and in very rare cases can cause someone to forget who they are.

The primary symptom of retrograde amnesia is memory loss of past events. But there are other symptoms of the condition that can vary depending on the type and severity of the amnesia.

Some of these symptoms may include:

  • not being able to remember what happened before the event that caused the amnesia
  • having trouble recalling people, places, or experiences from the period before the event
  • being able to remember distant memories, such as those from childhood or early life
  • being able to remember skills or abilities before the amnesia, like playing the piano
  • in severe cases, not being able to remember personal details about oneself

When someone develops both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, symptoms of both conditions can appear. They may also have difficulty remembering new faces or conversations, or experience confusion about what day it is or where they are.

Amnesia develops when the areas of the brain related to memory, such as the hippocampus and thalamus, become damaged. There are a handful of things that can cause this.

Bodily injuries

A traumatic brain injury happens when you experience a sudden jolt, bump, or shock to your head or body that causes damage to the brain. This kind of injury can happen from any activity that results in bodily trauma, such as sports injuries or car accidents.

Brain infections

Any viral and bacterial infection that affects the brain can place someone at risk for severe brain damage, especially if left untreated. Encephalitis, meningitis, and syphilis are a few of the infections that if not treated quickly, can cause brain damage and lead to amnesia.

Health conditions

One of the most common causes of amnesia is underlying neurological or health conditions that damage the brain. The following conditions can all increase the risk of developing a condition like retrograde amnesia:

  • seizure
  • cardiac arrest
  • stroke
  • Alzheimer’s
  • brain tumors

Other causes

Several other factors can increase the risk of retrograde amnesia. For example, a thiamine deficiency can lead to a condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which causes retrograde amnesia. And some drugs taken at high dosages can also cause this type of amnesia.

If you’ve been experiencing the symptoms of retrograde amnesia, it’s important to reach out to your doctor to discuss your concerns.

Your doctor will perform a physical exam and review your medical history to check for any underlying health conditions or risk factors that could explain your symptoms.

Your doctor will also likely run a series of diagnostic tests, which may include:

  • blood tests to identify any issues like infections or deficiencies
  • diagnostic tests to take images of the brain to check for abnormalities
  • cognitive and neurological exams to test your brain function and memory

Retrograde amnesia can make it difficult to remember personal medical information, so it can be helpful to bring a loved one who is familiar with your medical history to your appointments.

Treatment for amnesia usually involves treating or managing the cause of the amnesia, whenever possible. For example, if you have amnesia because of epilepsy or another neurological condition, your doctor may prescribe medications to help reduce your symptoms.

People with amnesia can also benefit from approaches like occupational therapy and psychotherapy.

  • Occupational therapy: is a type of therapy that focuses on improving emotional and physical health through meaningful activities. An occupational therapist can help you develop strategies that will allow you to function better in your everyday life.
  • Psychotherapy: is a therapeutic approach that’s helpful for treating some of the emotional symptoms that can accompany retrograde amnesia. A therapist can teach you the skills necessary to improve your emotional well-being.

Some of the underlying causes of amnesia, like stroke or dementia, can’t be treated. So, in these cases, it’s more about long-term management – which means having as much support as possible to improve quality of life.

Retrograde amnesia is a form of amnesia that makes it difficult for a person to recall experiences or events before a specific point in time. It’s often caused by an underlying condition, infection, or injury that causes damage to the memory-related areas of the brain.

Doctors can diagnose retrograde amnesia through a series of physical and diagnostic tests, including blood and imaging tests. Treatment typically involves treating the underlying cause or providing support for long-term care.

If you’re concerned that you or a loved one is experiencing the symptoms of retrograde amnesia, consider reaching out to a health professional to discuss your options.